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Of Mice and Melodies

Could singing mice provide clues to language problems in humans?

Steven Phelps hopes so.

The University of Texas at Austin biologist — with the help of a team of researchers — has been analyzing the operatic trills of some exotic rodents who use a bird-like song to communicate. Phelps is focusing on a transcription factor called FOXP2 — often referred to as the “language gene” and the one usually implicated in human speech disorders.

These musical mice are not your ordinary lab rats. They hail from the tropical cloud forests in the mountains of Costa Rica and have tawny brown fur. But because they share the FOXP2 gene with humans, Phelps believes researchers can learn from the mice’s genetic patterns and eventually apply that knowledge to people. This information may, for example, give researchers a better understanding of language deficits among autistic people. 

Members of the Phelps lab at The University of Texas at Austin."We can choose any number of traits to study but we try and choose traits that are not only interesting for their own sake but also have some biomedical relevance," says Phelps.

Mutations of the FOXP2 in humans can cause language problems ranging from grammar comprehension to forming the mouth movements needed for clear speech. And such mutations can also create a chain reaction, reducing the expression of a number of other genes — even causing no expression among some genes.

But these mice may help scientists better understand those human genetic problems. Phelps’ team plays recordings of songs to the singing mice and their neighboring species and then tries to determine what activates FOXP2 expression. Researchers use next-generation sequencing — on supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center — to decipher how FOXP2 interacts with DNA to regulate the function of other genes.

Melodious mice and cutting-edge research — ultimately the combination may solve the puzzle of human language disorders.

Pictured above: Members of the Phelps lab at The University of Texas at Austin. Researchers from left to right are: Andreas George, Steven Phelps, Alejandro Berrio, Lauren O' Connell and Mariam Okhovat.

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