The singing mice of Costa Rica, which emit an audible birdlike trill as a mating call, have something unexpected in common with human beings. We share a gene called FOXP2 with these rodents, which is related to vocalization. When humans have damaged FOXP2 genes, it results in speech disorders that can be quite profound.

Now a group of researchers at UT Austin, led by Steven Phelps, are using supercomputers to analyze how FOXP2 interacts with other genes in mice. Their hope is that they can learn more about how genes relate to speech, and perhaps in the process how to fix what can go wrong with those genes.

A release from UT Austin describes one of Phelps' experiments:

Phelps and his team are figuring out what activates FOXP2 expression and the genes that are expressed after its activation by playing singing mice recording of songs from their own species and neighboring species and observing the gene expression patterns.

"We found that when an animal hears a song from the same species, these neurons that carry FOXP2 become activated. So we think that FOXP2 may play a role in integrating that information," said Lauren O'Connell, a post-doctoral researcher in the Phelps lab.

Learning what activates FOXP2 and what genes are activated by it could provide clues into how outside stimuli affects gene expression and what genes are important in the understanding and integration of information, said Phelps.

In other words, the FOXP2 gene may turn out to be important not just to vocalization, but to the way animals communicate with each other. All mice carry the FOXP2 gene (their songs are just not audible like those of the singing mice), as do birds.

Here's hoping that one day we'll have a futuristic gene tweak to FOXP2 that will allow me to understand what the ravens in my backyard are saying.