ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Scientists have used genetic techniques to alter all sorts of crops - corn, potatoes and now mushrooms. There is a new version of the common white button mushroom in the lab. But the way scientists have tweaked its genes means that government agencies may not have authority to regulate it. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: A few years ago, a leading mushroom executive paid a visit to Penn State University, and he got to talking with a scientist named Yinong Yang about what makes the perfect mushroom.
YINONG YANG: And I asked actually what kind of trade, what kind of quality they're looking for mushroom.
CHARLES: And the mushroom producer said I would love to see a mushroom that doesn't turn brown when you slice it. It was a reasonable idea because there are apples and potatoes like that already. Biotech companies created those crops by inserting genes into them. They were considered genetically modified, and the companies had to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell them.
But that was before a hot, new technique to edit genes called CRISPR. Yang used this new tool to cut out a tiny piece of DNA from one particular gene. That's all it took - no new DNA. Yang asked regulators at the USDA - does this mushroom need your approval? This week, the USDA replied no. This mushroom is not covered by our regulations. Now, Yang says he will ask the Food and Drug Administration to look at it, too.
YANG: In fact, I just talked to the FDA people yesterday.
CHARLES: But that FDA review is voluntary, not mandatory. Douglas Gurian-Sherman with the nonprofit Center for Food Safety thinks this is a little disturbing. He says when there's no formal regulatory review, we don't get to see exactly what's been done to that food.
DOUGLAS GURIAN-SHERMAN: Because the company can just keep its data to itself.
CHARLES: And he says this technique can create genetic alterations that are not fully predictable. Any gene-edited food, he says, should require government approval.
GURIAN-SHERMAN: Because of the newness of the technology, you know, we think that it should be regulated as a technology.
CHARLES: This mushroom is expected to be the first of many crops altered by gene editing. And that's one reason why the government is now reviewing its entire system for regulating genetically modified crops. That review is expected to take many months - perhaps years. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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