Researchers have uncovered a surprising genetic connection between the development of language in humans and learning in fruit flies, publishing their findings in the journal PLoS One. In 2007, the team of researchers, based at the University of Missouri, discovered a gene in fruit flies that is very similar to a human gene called FoxP2, which is thought to play a role in human language and learning.
In this new work, they studied flies with a modified version of FoxP2, and tested their ability to learn how to do a simple flight-based task, known as operant learning, similar to learning by trial and error. Insects with a faulty version of the gene couldn’t learn how to do the task, while normal flies performed just fine. Looking closer, they also found subtle changes in the brains of flies with modified gene. The ancestors of humans and fruit flies split around 500 million years ago, but because the same gene is conserved in both, and seems to have a similar function, the results reveal more about the genetic basis of communication and learning across the animal kingdom.