MU Study Says Flies Teach Scientists How People Talk

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COLUMBIA - A gene identified in fruit flies allowed a University of Missouri researcher discover a component of human language.

Troy Zars is an associate professor of biological sciences at MU. Zars and a team of German researchers studied flies with a modified gene. In an experiment simulating human language learning, flies had to try different movements with their flight muscles in a custom built simulator to learn where to fly.

The team found flies with a modified gene failed the experiment. The struggle parallels human patients with the same gene mutation, where communication is altered.

"Identification of this characteristic in flies provides a starting point in understanding the genes involved in trial-and-error-based learning and how genetic bases of communication deficits arise in humans," Zars said.

Zars said his team of researchers around the world has been working on this project for years.

"In 2007, our team discovered that a gene in the fruit fly genome was very similar to the human version of the Forkhead Box P (FoxP) gene and in our latest study we have determined it is a major player in behavior-based, or operant, learning."

Identifying the effects of the genetic mutation help explain why some children have trouble learning to talk.

"It's pretty intuitive to think about how this works in children as they are growing up," Zars said. "I know this from my own experience with three kids that they try and make communication, they try and make words, often times they don't mean anything, right? Then they get rewarded for something they say that is appropriate."

The discoveries suggest one of the roots of language can be placed 500 million years ago to an ancestor who had evolved the ability to learn by trial and error, the team concluded.