Francis Crick Prize Lecture
By Dr Simon Fisher, Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford
Our unparalleled capacity for complex speech and language remains one of the most intriguing but elusive aspects of being human. It has long been suspected that some answers to this enigma will be found buried within the genome. With recent advances in genetic technologies, such suspicions are beginning to be confirmed. One molecule at the heart of this new wave of research is a gene called FOXP2. People who carry mutations of FOXP2 have problems with the learning and production of sequences of mouth movements needed for speech, along with deficits in language and grammar.
Intriguingly, FOXP2 is a control gene that can switch on and off other genes in the brain. It is evolutionarily ancient, found in similar form in many diverse species, including birds, rodents and fish, but there is evidence that its role(s) may have been modified during human evolution.
Rather than being the mythical "gene for language", FOXP2 represents just one important piece of a complex puzzle. The lecture will illustrate how FOXP2 can provide a unique molecular window into key neural pathways, allowing us to build the first bridges between genes, brains and speech and language.