USDA clears genetically modified mushrooms

Gene editing has been a hot-button topic for scientists, and even for general moral advocates, who believe the procedure could very easily lead to “designer babies.” And that topic became even hotter with the advent of CRISPR-Cas9, an editing technique that makes it easier to modify any organism’s genomes. But while the debate is still raging on between those in favor and those against the technique, it looks like the government has just approved the first-ever CRISPR-modified organism.

A team of Penn State University researchers made use of the controversial, yet effective technique on white button mushrooms, adding an anti-browning phenotype that dulled the effectiveness of the polyphenol oxidase enzyme to just about 70 percent; this enzyme makes produce brown if exposed to air. As CRISPR doesn’t leverage microscopic organisms or viruses in trying to edit DNA, the mushrooms do not fall into the category of “plant pests.”

“APHIS has concluded that your CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms as described in your letter do not contain any introduced genetic material,” wrote the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in a letter addressed to the Penn State researchers. “APHIS has no reason to believe that CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms are plant pests.”

Although it’s good that the USDA has given the green light to the genetically edited mushrooms, it may be some time before they become available at groceries. The ‘shrooms may need to undergo approval from other administrative agencies, including a couple other government agencies, the Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency.

If the mushrooms do pass muster with the other government agencies, study lead author Yinong Yang of Penn State said that he is deciding on whether to launch a company to sell the genetically edited mushrooms. He did, however, add that he has to “talk to my dean about that” and “see what the university wants to do next” before proceeding any further.