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Here Come the Unregulated GMOs

New foods like a mushroom altered with CRISPR gene editing are falling outside the purview of regulators.

People are arguing about whether genetically modified foods should carry labels. But the next generation of GMOs might not only be unlabeled—they might be unregulated.

Over at Scientific American you can read a 6,000-word story about how one such organism, a GM mushroom, was created. The short version is that a plant scientist named Yinong Yang used the gene-editing technique called CRISPR to snip out a few DNA letters in the genome of “Agaricus bisporus, the most popular dinner-table mushroom in the Western world.”

The result: he turned off an enzyme that turns mushrooms brown.

Why wouldn’t a modified mushroom be regulated, you ask? Because regulation of GMOs is a big mess that doesn’t make too much sense. Back in the 1990s, when Monsanto and the like were first coming out with biotech crops, the U.S. cobbled together a way to regulate them from existing rules.

Those early GMOs (and most since) had genes from bacteria in them, like the gene that makes Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans survive a dousing of weed killer. What the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided is, since the plants had DNA from germs, it could regulate these crops under its authority to control plant pests.

But Yang’s mushroom doesn’t have any bacterial DNA in its genome. He didn’t add any DNA at all, he told the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Instead, he just used gene-editing to blow a few teeny little holes in one gene and shut it off.

As a result, the USDA’s APHIS division told Yang his GMO plant isn’t going to be regulated because it sidesteps the regulation:

APHIS has concluded that your CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms as described in your letter do not contain any introduced genetic material. APHIS has no reason to believe that CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms are plant pests.

It’s not the first product to get cleared in this way. Last summer we wrote about a potato with a similar modification, also to stop browning, and there have been a handful of others.

Biotech plant companies are excited. They’re going to be able to innovate fast now that they don’t have to spend a decade doing field trials.

Regulators are scrambling to catch up with the science. Right now, the U.S. is revisiting its rules governing how GMOs should be handled and crop developers are also “anxiously waiting” to find out if gene-edited plants will be treated any differently in Europe, according to Jennifer Kuzma, a professor and policy researcher at North Carolina State University.

Kuzma’s recent analysis of GMO regulations will interest anyone who wants the details. Her takeaway is that “oversight of [genetic-engineering] has never seemed so much like a powder keg waiting to explode.” She thinks the rise of gene editing is “a chance to start over” with regulations that make more sense scientifically but that also find a way to reflect the “values” of people who oppose GMOs and just don’t like messing with nature.

Don’t hold your breath for this mushroom to hit store shelves. Yang, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, told me that the company that helped pay for the research, Giorgio Mushroom Co. of Pennsylvania, isn’t convinced they’d want to sell it. “[The] marketing people at Giorgio are more interested in organic mushrooms and are afraid of negative response regarding GMO from consumers,” Yang says.

(Read more: Nature, Scientific American, “A Potato Made with Gene Editing,” “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2016: Precise Gene Editing in Plants”)

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