Scientists engineer a mouse that sings like a bird

Scientists at the University of Osaka in Japan have used genetic engineering to produce a mouse that sings like a bird. You can hear what one sounds like here.

When I first heard about mice singing like birds, earlier today, it brought to mind Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel Oryx and Crake. The story is set against a backdrop of an imaginary future world containing a myriad of transgenic animals – animals created when genetic material from one species is inserted into another, via the techniques of genetic engineering. In the novel, there are, for example, “wolvogs” (they look like dogs, but have the feral nature of wolves) and “rakunks” (a cross between a skunk and a raccoon, kept as pets).

But the mice that sing were not created by mixing bird genes with mice genes. Instead, researchers with the “Evolved Mouse Project,” as they call it, are more akin to dog breeders, who actively select within a single species (mice) for certain traits (in this case, bird-like tweeting or singing). The Japanese researchers said they started with genetically modified mice that are prone to miscopying DNA and thus to mutations. According to lead researcher Arikuni Uchimura, the research team checked the newly born mice one by one. One day, they found a mouse that was “singing like a bird,” he said. He said the “singing mouse” was born by chance but that – with a little help from science – the trait will be passed on to future generations.

Arikuni Uchimura told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the researchers hope their work will shed light on the origins of human language.

Scientists have found that birds use different sound elements, put them together into chunks like words in human languages and then make strings of them to sing “songs”, that are subject to certain linguistic rules. “Mice are better than birds to study because they are mammals and much closer to humans in their brain structures and other biological aspects,” Uchimura said.

You can read more about the singing mice here.

AFP also reported that Osaka University’s Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences, in western Japan, now has more than 100 singing mice for further research.

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