Everything you think you know about genetically modified food is about to change

mushroom foraging
mushroom foraging

(Mr. Thinktank)

In a letter released to the public on Thursday, the US Department of Agriculture said that it won't regulate a mushroom that has been gene-edited to prevent it from turning brown.

This is widely different from the approach it's taken with GMOs, which are regulated by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which keeps an eye on new genetically modified organisms that "may pose a risk to plant health."

The mushroom, developed by Yinong Yang at Penn State, is not the first crop to be modified using the controversial gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9, but it is the first one that the USDA has said isn't subject to regulation. And that means that everything we know about genetically modified food may be about to change.

At its essence, CRISPR is a far more accurate method of modifying genes than scientists have had access to before.

At the center of the agency's decision not to subject the new crop to its rules is the fact that the CRISPR-edited mushroom doesn't contain any "introduced genetic material" or foreign DNA, and so would not be a threat to other plants.

This is the focus of a lot of the policy surrounding GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Because GMO crops are tweaked in a lab to contain harmless DNA from other organisms, like bacteria, which help make them more resistant to things like drought or pests, they are regulated by the USDA.

In its letter, the agency says firmly that the CRISPR-edited mushroom doesn't pose a risk to plant health, and so doesn't need to be regulated:

APHIS has no reason to believe that CRISPR/Cas-9-edited white button mushrooms are plant pests. Therefore, consistent with previous responses to similar letters of inquiry, APHIS does not consider CRISPR/Cas-9-edited white button mushrooms ... to be regulated.

A world of CRISPR crops?

This could be the shape of things to come.

"If USDA decides the first product does not require regulation, that would definitely be encouraging for the many people already using CRISPR," Joyce Van Eck, an assistant professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute, told the Genetic Expert News Service.

Many researchers are currently looking into developing CRISPR food products.

Maywa Montenegro wrote for environmental-news site Ensia in January:

Since its 2013 demonstration as a genome editing tool in Arabidopsis and tobacco — two widely used laboratory plants — CRISPR has been road-tested in crops, including wheat, rice, soybeans, potatoes, sorghum, oranges and tomatoes. By the end of 2014, a flood of research into agricultural uses for CRISPR included a spectrum of applications, from boosting crop resistance to pests to reducing the toll of livestock disease.

In other words, this CRISPR crop is probably not going to be the last one we see.

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