Controversial New Technology Allows Scientists To Doctor DNA Strands, May Sidestep GMO Regs

White button mushroom

Genetically Modified Franken-Fungus That Doesn’t Go Brown Stirs Controversy

A genetically-modified mushroom created by scientists at Penn State University is at the center of controversy due to the use of new technology to modify the fungus’ genes directly, without injecting the DNA of other organisms into it. The ease with which the new technology, called CRISPR can rewrite gene code and the way the method will fit into the framework of GMO regulations is at the heart of the problem.

The technology, the full name of which is CRISPR-Cas9, can be used to effectively cut and paste genes, altering plants and animals with the ease that scientists compare to editing a word document. Among the creations so far are dogs, goats and monkeys, but pigs are a especially interesting to scientists. They’ve manufactured micropigs that weigh six times less than normal, overly muscular pigs, and a pig whose genome was edited in 62 places in hopes of creating an animal whose organs could be donated to humans. The technology is so cheap that there are even hobbyists using it in their garages and “community laboratories.”

Which brings us back to Penn State and the shroom enthusiast. Researcher Yinong Yang has created a type of white button mushroom that seems to all appearances to be identical to the kind you buy in the produce section of a grocery store. The mushroom has a mere two letters of its DNA code changed that results in a white mushroom that is resistant to browning from oxidation.

But here’s where the real problems begin. The USDA has inexplicably allowed Yang’s new strain of mushroom to dodge the usual GMO regulatory system, despite the clear fact that it is the very definition of “genetically engineered.”

Wha? Here’s where it gets weird. The agency has ruled that the mushroom gets a pass because it’s all mushroom. Since it doesn’t contain “…any introduced genetic material,” say from a plant pest, such as a virus or bacteria, it evades definition as a GM organism under the current rules. If you don’t add anything to a plant, it’s not engineered.

As Michael J. Firko, Deputy Administrator at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said, “Consistent with previous responses to similar letters of inquiry, APHIS does not consider CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms…to be regulated pursuant to 7 CFR part 340.”

Thus far, it is estimated that 30 new crops have been created slipping through this USDA loophole, and that is just in the past five years. As the technology spreads and becomes more and more commonplace we can expect to see that number skyrocket.

As Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch said, “The USDA decision is a perfect illustration of how weak regulations for evaluating genetically engineered crops are.”

Indeed. It’s ridiculous that any jerk with an imagination and a few grand can alter the very stuff of life itself and his products will go completely unregulated. We have no idea what we’re doing, as usual. And as usual in this idiotic time, we are rushing headlong into the unknown without anyone sensible at the wheel, certainly not the USDA.

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