The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided that a white button mushroom that was genetically modified to eliminate browning is not subject to regulation from the department as no foreign DNA was added to the product but was a result of the removal of a gene using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system.

USDA Has No Interest In Regulating GMO Mushroom

USDA has as little interest in this GMO mushroom as mushroom lovers will

Last week the USDA told Yinong Yang, a Pennsylvania State University associate professor and researcher, that his modification to the genome of the Agaricus bisporus white button mushroom wasn’t subject its regulation as he simply removed a bit of the genome to prevent browning after slicing.

I doubt that I’m the not the only person reading this saying, “Why would you modify an insipidly boring mushroom that offers little more than a slimy texture and little to no flavor?”

While that question will forever be a mystery to me, that’s precisely what Yan did. In Yang’s defense, he believes that his work can extend to other mushrooms and increase shelf-life while cutting down on food waste which is a genuine challenge to the environment. Wasted food is a great contributor to the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.

In a letter to Yang last week the USDA explained that they cleared the mushroom because it “does not contain any introduced genetic material.”

“Therefore, consistent with previous responses to similar letters of inquiry, APHIS [the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] does not consider CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms…to be regulated,” the agency wrote in the letter.

GMOs split scientific/public opinion

Science and the public have an interesting if not a sometimes ironic relationship. For example, about 97% of climate scientists believe (or know) that humans are causing global warming but this number if much lower in the public opinion arena. On the other hand, 88% of the American Association for the Advancement of Science members as well as FDA scientists believe that GMOs are “as safe as comparable,” non-GMO products. However, the Pew Research Center points out that 57% of adults in the U.S. believe GMOs to be unsafe.

All of this as Congress is under pressure to work out a way to label genetically manipulated foods with the Obama administration calling on the USDA, FDA, and the EPA to revisit their own regulations on GMOs.

Yang’s CRISPR work with mushrooms

Dr. Yang used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system in order to disable a gene that produces polyphenol oxidase, an enzyme that causes browning once the interior of the mushroom is exposed to more air after cutting, tearing or slicing. The CRISPR-Cas9 process uses RNA-guided Cas9 enzymes to play around with DNA molecules on the cheap with a single procedure running around $30. While Yang is likely to commercialize his mushrooms he intends to seek (unnecessary?) approval from the FDA to avoid potential future legal issues. “The research community will be very happy with the news,” Caixia Gao, a Chinese Academy of Sciences plant biologist and colleague of Yang, told Nature recently . “I am confident we’ll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.”

The decision by the USDA is a little reminiscent of the FBI’s issues with Apple over the San Bernandino shooter’s iPhone. All parties seem pleased to let the issue die, but they have left bigger questions unanswered when it comes to privacy and GMOs.