Genetically 'Edited' Mushroom Bypasses GMO Food Rules Through Regulatory Loophole

By R. Siva Kumar - 16 Apr '16 07:43AM
  • White button mushrooms
  • (Photo : Wikimedia.org) White button mushrooms ---- Agaricus bisporus Zuchtchampignon

As it is the current hot debate, scientists pose a major question---what is a genetically modified organism (GMO)? If experts remove DNA from a vegetable and do not add new genes, can it be called a GMO?

Penn State University researcher Yinong Yang has used CRISPR/Cas9, which is a gen-editing tool, to cut off a piece of DNA from a gene in a white button mushroom. He could thus disable the gene and bring down its production of the polyphenol oxidase enzyme, as well as increase its time taken to become brown.

Techniques have been used to create "non-browning apples and potatoes" which are thought to be GMOs due to the addition of genes. However, classification of processes such as Yang's is still not clear, and is under hot discussion.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Yang found, would not regulate his food.

"APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) has concluded that your CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms as described in your letter do not contain any introduced genetic material," they said.  "APHIS has no reason to believe that CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms are plant pests."

For the first time, the department has studied crop edited with CRISPR, which may lead to more such techniques in the future. But despite clicking with the USDA, the crop can still face studies by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"Anything for food or feed consumption, usually the company submits the data to FDA for approval," says Yang, although he notes that "this process is voluntary, not mandatory."

Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology program coordinator at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, feels that Yang's mushroom unearths flaws in the government's regulatory processes.

"The regulatory system is not science-based, but trigger-based," he said. Also that the USDA only regulates crops that expose them to the risk of leading to weeds or pests in other plants.

"You could have a situation where a crop may actually have some risk, but doesn't get regulated by USDA, and you could have things that don't have any risk, but which are regulated," Jaffe added.

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