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Corante Blogs examine, through the eyes of leading observers, analysts, thinkers, and doers, critical themes and memes in technology, business, law, science, and culture.

The Press Will Be Outsourced Before Stopped

Vin Crosbie, on the challenges, financial and otherwise, that newspaper publishers are facing: "The real problem, Mr. Newspaperman, isn't that your content isn't online or isn't online with multimedia. It's your content. Specifically, it's what you report, which stories you publish, and how you publish them to people, who, by the way, have very different individual interests. The problem is the content you're giving them, stupid; not the platform its on."
by Vin Crosbie in Rebuilding Media

Travels In Numerica Deserta

There's a problem in the drug industry that people have recognized for some years, but we're not that much closer to dealing with it than we were then. We keep coming up with these technologies and techniques which seem as if they might be able to help us with some of our nastiest problems - I'm talking about genomics in all its guises, and metabolic profiling, and naturally the various high-throughput screening platforms, and others. But whether these are helping or not (and opinions sure do vary), one thing that they all have in common is that they generate enormous heaps of data.
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Disrobing the Emperor: The online “user experience” isn't much of one

Now that the Web labor market is saturated and Web design a static profession, it's not surprising that 'user experience' designers and researchers who've spent their careers online are looking for new worlds to conquer. Some are returning to the “old media” as directors and producers. More are now doing offline consulting (service experience design, social policy design, exhibition design, and so on) under the 'user experience' aegis. They argue that the lessons they've learned on the Web can be applied to phenomena in the physical and social worlds. But there are enormous differences...
by Bob Jacobson in Total Experience

Second Life: What are the real numbers?

Clay Shirky, in deconstructing Second Life hype: "Second Life is heading towards two million users. Except it isn’t, really... I suspect Second Life is largely a 'Try Me' virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use."
by Clay Shirky in Many-to-Many

The democratisation of everything

Over the last few years we've seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we're seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk... Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry... What's left? Software maybe? Or maybe not."
by Suw Charman in Strange Attractor

RNA Interference: Film at Eleven

Derek Lowe on the news that the Nobel Prize for medicine has gone to Craig Mello and Andrew Fire for their breakthrough work: "RNA interference is probably going to have a long climb before it starts curing many diseases, because many of those problems are even tougher than usual in its case. That doesn't take away from the discovery, though, any more than the complications of off-target effects take away from it when you talk about RNAi's research uses in cell culture. The fact that RNA interference is trickier than it first looked, in vivo or in vitro, is only to be expected. What breakthrough isn't?"
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

PVP and the Honorable Enemy

Andrew Phelps: "Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor..."

From later in the piece: "When I talk about this with people (thus far anyway) I typically get one of two responses, either 'yeah, right on!' or 'hey, it’s war, and war isn’t honorable – grow the hell up'. There is a lot to be said for that argument – but the problem is that war in the real historical world has very different constraints that are utterly absent from fantasized worlds..."
by Andrew Phelps in Got Game

Rats Rule, Right?

Derek Lowe: "So, you're developing a drug candidate. You've settled on what looks like a good compound - it has the activity you want in your mouse model of the disease, it's not too hard to make, and it's not toxic. Everything looks fine. Except. . .one slight problem. Although the compound has good blood levels in the mouse and in the dog, in rats it's terrible. For some reason, it just doesn't get up there. Probably some foul metabolic pathway peculiar to rats (whose innards are adapted, after all, for dealing with every kind of garbage that comes along). So, is this a problem?.."
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Really BAD customer experience at Albertsons Market

Bob Jacobson, on shopping at his local Albertsons supermarket where he had "one of the worst customer experiences" of his life: "Say what you will about the Safeway chain or the Birkenstock billionaires who charge through the roof for Whole Foods' organic fare, they know how to create shopping environments that create a more pleasurable experience, at its best (as at Whole Foods) quite enjoyable. Even the warehouses like Costco and its smaller counterpart, Smart & Final, do just fine: they have no pretentions, but neither do they dump virtual garbage on the consumer merely to create another trivial revenue stream, all for the sake of promotions in the marketing department..."
by Strange Attractor in Total Experience

The Guardian's "Comment is Free"

Kevin Anderson: "First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies... It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles..."
by Kevin Anderson in strange
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

The Loom

« Soul Made Flesh: A Preview | Main | One gene, many fish »

October 17, 2003

From Genes to Words

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Posted by Carl Zimmer

Science is so specialized these days that it's hard for scientists to look up beyond the very narrow confines of their own work. Biologists who study cartilage don't have much to say to biologists who study retinas. Astronomers who study globular clusters probably can't tell you what's new with planetary disks. But sometimes scientists from different specialties can come together and integrate their work into something truly impressive. A case in point comes from some ongoing research into the evolution of language.

No species aside from our own can use language. Chimpanzees and other primates can communicate, but they can't make the subtle sounds that humans can, nor can they turn those sounds into words organized into meaningful sentences. Something happened--or, more likely, many things happened--in the six million years or so since our ancestors split off from the other apes. Fossils offer only a few clues, because the vocal cords, muscles, and nerves that make speech possible are too delicate to turn to fossils. And there's no Pleistocene Napster we can turn to in order to download recordings of what our hominid ancestors sounded like.

Fortunately, there's another record of evolution embedded in the human genome. Unfortunately, it's incredibly hard to figure out what role individual genes have in something as complex as language. In fact, it was only in 2001 that scientists identified a gene involved in acquiring spoken language. They found it by studying a Pakistani family in which half the members suffered from a disorder that interfered with their ability to understand grammar and to speak. The scientists tracked the disorder back to a single mutation to a single gene, which is now known as FOXP2.

FOXP2 belongs to a family of genes found in animals and fungi. They all produce proteins that regulate other genes, giving them a powerful role in the development of the body. FOXP2 in particular exists in other mammals, in slightly different forms. In mice, for example, the part of the gene that actually encodes a protein is 93.5% identical to human FOXP2. And studies on mice show that it plays a crucial role in the developing mouse brain.

Last year another group of scientists compared the the human version of FOXP2 to the sequence in our close primate relatives. They found that chimpanzees have a version of the gene that's hardly different from the gene in mice. But in our own lineage, FOXP2 underwent some fierce natural selection. By comparing the minor differences in FOXP2 carried by different people, the scientists were able to estimate when that natural selection took place--roughly 100,000 years ago. That's about the time when archaeological evidence suggests that humans began using language. (For a good review of all this work, go here.)

How then did FOXP2 pave the way for language? The only way to really get at that question is to understand what the gene does. Some researchers have argued, for example, that it really isn't a "language gene" per se; instead, it screws up the motor control of the mouth, which then makes it very hard for a person to learn language. It has as much to do with language as blindfold, in other words.

Enter brain scanning. Recently, a team of London scientists got a glimpse at the gene by imaging the brains of the original FOXP2 family. As they reported this week in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers split up the family into those who had defective copies of FOXP2 and those who had working copies. They then had the subjects do different language tasks, such as thinking of verbs that go with nouns.

The scientists found that a change to FOXP2 changes the way the brain handles language. Specifically, in people with mutant copies of the gene, a language processing area of the brain called Broca's area is far less active than in people with normal FOXP2.

Broca's area is interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the function of that same patch of tissue in primates. Obviously, they don't use it to talk. But this region is home to some remarkable cells known as "mirror neurons." They fire in the same pattern when a monkey performs some action--turning a lever, for example--and when the monkey sees another monkey performing the same action. These neurons may make imitation possible, and perhaps might have even laid the foundation for a primitive sign language long before our vocal tracts were ready to take over. The natural thing to do now is to measure FOXP2 expression in the Broca's area homolog in other primates. (Harvard's Marc Hauser raises some important reservations about the role of mirror neurons here.)

Of course, FOXP2 will almost certainly not turn out to be the single gene that made human language possible. But thanks to neuroimaging, gene expression profiling, and other new techniques, it can serve as the thin edge of a wedge that scientists can use to split this mystery open.

Comments (3) | Category: Brains


1. motekye on July 5, 2004 05:33 AM writes...

Animals and Fungi? You mean to say that mushrooms have the capacity for speech?

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2. Carl Zimmer on July 5, 2004 11:41 AM writes...

No, mushrooms don't have speech, nor do fruit flies or mice, which also have the FOXP2 gene. Humans have a unique *form* of this gene. The difference is tiny in terms of the fraction of the sequence that's changed, but the effect is big, because it helps us produce language, which is unique to humans.

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3. Trehin Paul on September 29, 2004 08:53 AM writes...

Thanks for this discussion.

In the spring of this year there was an article on FoxP2 in birds that learn their languages, as opposed to birds who have an innate language.

The idea is that perhaps FoxP2 is a gene that enables learning languages rather than a gene that controls languages.

Sorry, I can't be more precise, I am not at home so I don't have the exact references.

Yours sincerely.


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