Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Flies can tell us about the Origin of Language


Scientists have discovered a crucial component of the origin of language – in fruit flies. A team at Universität Regensburg in collaboration with researchers from Berlin, Jena and Columbia, Missouri in the US studied the fruit fly version of a gene involved in human language, FOXP2, and found that it is necessary for learning movements in flies as well.

“Speaking any language requires proper articulation of the different sounds,” says Björn Brembs, Professor of Neurogenetics at Universität Regensburg, who coordinated the collaboration.

Photograph of Drosophila

“To accomplish this feat, muscles in the lips, tongue and larynx need to work perfectly together. As toddlers, we acquire these skills by babbling until what we utter matches what we want to say,” adds Constance Scharff who has shown the relevance of FoxP for song learning in birds at the Freie Universität Berlin.

“Young songbirds try out different variants of sounds similarly to how infants babble”. Brembs and Scharff’s groups teamed up to study the role of FoxP in flies.

The researchers studied flies with genetically engineered FoxP in a learning experiment that comes as close to vocal learning as possible in a non-vocal animal. Similarly to infants and birds, the flies had to try out different movements with their flight muscles to learn where to fly and where not to fly.

Using a heat beam, the experimenters trained the flies to avoid flying towards one direction, forcing the fly to try different steering maneuvers. Flies with compromised FoxP genes failed in this task, while control flies did well. Importantly, the FoxP manipulated flies had no problem learning to avoid a particular direction when this was coupled to a color. The specificity of this deficit is also typical for patients with FOXP2 mutations.

“Also in line with the known function of FoxP in humans and birds is the observation that the morphology of certain sub-regions of the mutant flies’ brains is altered. This indicates that FoxP might regulate the expression of other genes during brain development,” says Jürgen Rybak from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, who performed the morphological measurements of the fly brains.

These discoveries suggest that one of the roots of language can be placed 500 million years ago at the split between vertebrates and invertebrates, to an ancestor which had evolved the ability to learn by trial and error. From this, Troy Zars of the University of Missouri, Columbia concludes, “The identification of this phenotype in FoxP mutant flies provides a starting point in understanding the genes involved in trial-and-error-based learning and communication across species, and should help in understanding how genetic bases of communication deficits arise in humans." Zars had discovered the FoxP gene in the fly genome in 2007.

“Presumably, the ability to learn from trial and error was harnessed when vocal learning in vertebrates and language acquisition in humans evolved,” Brembs surmises. The conservation of these functions opens the window for basic research into the genetic mechanisms underlying complex traits such as language or schizophrenia in animals that do not exhibit these traits – especially in genetically very accessible invertebrates such as Drosophila.

Further information:

Press Contact
Prof. Dr. Björn Brembs
Universität Regensburg
Institute for Zoology
Tel.: 0049 (0)941 943-3117

Alexander Schlaak | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
Further information:

Further reports about: ability flies fly genes genetically humans infants muscles sounds traits vertebrates vocal

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Gene therapy shows promise for treating Niemann-Pick disease type C1
27.10.2016 | NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute

nachricht 'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape
27.10.2016 | International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>