Dr. Simon E. FisherThe NewScientist article The evolutionary story of the “language gene” said
It had long been suspected that language has some basis in genetics, but this was the first time that a specific gene had been implicated in a speech and language disorder. Overeager journalists quickly dubbed FOXP2 “the language gene” or the “grammar gene”. Noting that complex language is a characteristically human trait, some even speculated that FOXP2 might account for our unique position in the animal kingdom. Scientists were less gushing but equally excited the discovery sparked a frenzy of research aiming to uncover the gene’s role.
Several years on, and it is clear that talk of a “language gene” was premature and simplistic. Nevertheless, FOXP2 tells an intriguing story. “When we were first looking for the gene, people were saying that it would be specific to humans since it was involved in language,” recalls Simon Fisher at the University of Oxford, who was part of the team that identified FOXP2 in the KE family.
In fact, the gene evolved before the dinosaurs and is still found in many animals today: species from birds to bats to bees have their own versions, many of which are remarkably similar to ours. “It gives us a really important lesson,” says Fisher. “Speech and language didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. They’re built on very highly conserved and evolutionarily ancient pathways.”
Simon E. Fisher, D.Phil. is a Royal Society
Research Fellow and Reader in
Molecular Neuroscience at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics
(WTCHG) in Oxford, where he pioneers the first research into molecular
mechanisms that underlie human speech and language.
Simon earned a Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge University, and then moved to Oxford University where he carried out doctoral research at the Genetics Unit of the Biochemistry Department. During his D.Phil. he isolated a gene which is implicated in an inherited kidney-stone disorder.
From 1996–2002 he was a senior post-doctoral scientist in Professor Anthony Monaco’s group at the WTCHG, where he led teams conducting the first large-scale screens for genetic variants influencing childhood learning disabilities, including developmental dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In addition, working with student Cecilia Lai, he demonstrated that mutations of the FOXP2 gene causes a rare inherited speech and language disorder, a discovery which has had a major impact across diverse fields of science.
In 2002, Simon was awarded with a Research Fellowship by the Royal Society, and became head of his own laboratory at the WTCHG. His team, also funded by the Wellcome Trust and Autism Speaks, uses state-of-the-art methods to explore how genes like FOXP2 help to build a language-ready brain.
He has authored over 50 peer-reviewed publications including original research reports in leading scientific journals such as Nature, Nature Genetics, Current Biology, American Journal of Human Genetics and Brain, and influential refereed review articles in Nature Reviews Genetics, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, and Cognition. He is frequently invited to talk at major international conferences across a range of disciplines. His research benefits from a strong multidisciplinary remit, integrating data from diverse fields including psychology, neuroscience, genetics, developmental biology, and evolutionary anthropology.
Simon authored Dissection of molecular mechanisms underlying speech and language disorders, and coauthored The eloquent ape: genes, brains and the evolution of language, Functional genetic analysis of mutations implicated in a human speech and language disorder, Developmental dyslexia: genetic dissection of a complex cognitive trait, Independent genome-wide scans identify a chromosome 18 quantitative-trait locus influencing dyslexia, Use of Multivariate Linkage Analysis for Dissection of a Complex Cognitive Trait, Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language, and The SPCH1 Region on Human 7q31: Genomic Characterization of the Critical Interval and Localization of Translocations Associated with Speech and Language Disorder. Read the full list of his publications!
In 2005, Simon was “Highly Commended” for Young Researcher of the Year at the Times Higher Awards. In 2007 he was appointed as the Isobel Laing Fellow in Biomedical Sciences at Oriel College, Oxford. In 2008, he was awarded the prestigious Francis Crick Prize Lecture by the Royal Society.