A movie called ‘Ratatouille’ showed us a cartoon mouse that could cook up wonders. The real world matches this with mice that don’t just squeak, but sing too.
Singing for the Women
Scotinomys teguina are mice from the mountains of Costa Rica which communicate by singing. Before you start preparing to teach your next non-avian pet the latest from Adele, the singing capacity of these marvelous creatures is restricted to trilling—a rapid alternation between two adjacent notes. In several species of birds, males with greater trill production are seen to be greater threats by rivals, and seen as more attractive by females. Likewise, the male singing mouse emits a series of rapid high-pitched chirps to attract mates and fend off rivals.
Researchers at the University of Texas are now studying these mice to try and understand the genes that lead to this singing behavior—genes which could in turn regulate language in humans. It is known that music and language are processed by the same brain systems in humans in a part of the brain called the temporal lobes.
Looking for a ‘Singing Gene’
It is one gene in particular that is being studied, a gene called FOXP2 (Forkhead Box Protein P2). This gene is highly conserved across humans, singing mice and lab mice. In humans, mutations of this gene has been found to lead to speech and language disorders. In birds, removing this gene leads to inaccurate song imitation. The research team is sequencing this entire gene in the singing mice and looking for segments of DNA that are present only in the singing mouse as opposed to the lab mouse; from this set of changes, the team then filters out those that are likely to have occurred by chance and have no biological significance. The remaining gene changes are those that could be responsible for the ability of the singing mice to trill.
Another way to study this single gene is to look at its function. This protein regulates the expression and activities of a host of other proteins—what are they? “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 researcher in Steven Phelps’s lab, where this research is being conducted. They are now making the mice listen to songs, and record all the genes that are activated, to see which ones could be activated by FOXP2. This information will help us form the complete link between the gene and the biological property of singing or language in humans.
You can learn more about this research here.