Using the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, Yinong Yang, a researcher at the Pennsylvania State University, has created a variety of genetically modified mushrooms that keep longer because of their lighter color. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has determined that the kinds of fungi created this way should not be regarded as the traditional “genetically modified organisms” and are therefore exempt from additional controls in the United States. But the new technique and the USDA decision could have ramifications for regulatory bodies abroad.
The USDA decision is based on the fact that with the CRISPR-Cas9 technique does not introduce genes of different species. The CRISPR methodology allows scientists to intervene on specific segments of an organism’s DNA, turning off or “correcting” genes. Although it is not the only biotechnology able to do this, the ease of use and low cost have made it in two or three years the most popular instrument for manipulating DNA. The CRISPR method is generating high expectations at a scientific level while provoking fears over the bioethics involved — because now it seems all the more simple to modify a human embryo. But in the meantime, it could have a disruptive impact on the agro-food industry.
With CRISPR, in fact, you can create genetically modified organisms without running into limitations imposed by many countries. The most common commercially available GM crops incorporate other naturally occurring genes: BT rice, for example, takes its name from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, whose genes the rice has “absorbed” to defend it from pests. Many agricultural restrictions on the use of GMOs are justified by the difficulty of predicting the ecosystem consequences of genetic mutations as radical as swapping entire genes from one species to another. Genetic modification based on CRISPR called cisgenesis, however, would not have the same risks.