Monday, June 01, 2009

Mad Science Monday, 6/1/2009

Several weeks ago (even before my last post!), I saw this comic, which points out that so-called "mad scientists" are really more like mad engineers; they aren't trying to test anything, they just want to blow stuff up. That got me to start looking for actual mad science. Since then, to my surprise and delight, I've seen quite a bit.

Assuming the world of science continues to be beautifully strange, I'm going to try to bring you news of mad science every Monday. This week, I give you talking mice.

Mad Observation: People in a certain family had "difficulties with articulation and grammar." The people in that family who had those issues all had a certain version of the gene Foxp2. The gene Foxp2 is present in many (all?) mammals, including both humans and mice.

Mad Hypothesis: Perhaps the two mutations present in human copies of that gene but missing in the mouse version are important to human speech. We have the complete genomes of people and mice (and chimps, and rhesus macaques, and a growing number of organisms), and we know that gene is different in humans than it is in other mammals. There's some evidence that gene is important to speech. Is it?

Mad Experiment: Introduce the mutations in the mouse version of Foxp2, and see what happens. If there aren't any significant changes in the mice, the mutations must not be important (at least not alone) for human speech. If something significant occurs (like, say, a slight change in brain development), the gene might really be important to speech.

Mad Quotation: At the beginning of the project, Svante Paabo, one of the lead investigators, said, "We will speak to the mouse." I'm sure he worded it that way on purpose (he never said anything about the mouse speaking back), but, if spoken with the proper flair, it's a great mad scientist quote to set the scene.

They All Laughed, But: The lab really did only expect the mice to have slightly different brain development. Certainly far too many genes are involved in speech for this to have any significant effect, right? Except, when they made the mice, they found more differences than just brain development. Sure, the mutant mice had interesting developments in the part of the brain associated with speech, probably moreso than the researchers expected. But, in addition, there were actual changes in their communication.

When a baby mouse is away from the nest, it emits chirps to let its mom know where it is. The chirps of the mutant mice were significantly different in several characteristics, including pitch and rhythm.

The mice can't speak, of course, but holy crap. This change of two amino acids in one protein had a significant effect on the way the mice communicate.

Mad Caveat: The changes in the mouse vocalizations are actually within the range of normal variation among mice. It's probably an effect of the gene, since the differences were statistically significant between the mutant pups and their non-mutant littermates, but it's possible it's just random chance. Further tests will be necessary to further characterize the effects of Foxp2, but this is an interesting step.

Now to go find more science news sources to follow, to make sure I can keep this up next week. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments.


Charon said...

I applaud this new effort!

Libby Hickson said...

It's certainly a better use of your time than ripping apart a teenybopper novel for no good reason.

Charon said...

You clearly didn't read the deconstruction then, Libbs. The reason was indeed stated.

Die Anyway said...

Good to see you haven't fallen off the face of the earth.
Won't it be something if we give mice enough genes to actually let them talk and it turns out they sound exactly like Mickey?

Jon Harmon said...

That would be hilarious, Die.

Yeah, I'm still here, I've just been lazy :)