This Tiny Mushroom Could Pave The Way To Curbing World Hunger

The genetically-altered mushroom was cleared by the USDA.
David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

Prepare for prettier produce, people.

In the future, you may notice that your white button mushrooms stay fresh-looking longer and take more time to turn brown. That's because last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed it will not regulate the sale of white button mushrooms that have been genetically altered using a technique called CRISPR.

The Washington Post reports this marks the first time a CRISPR-altered food is on the path to being sold to and eaten by the public.

The CRISPR technique edits the mushroom's DNA, allowing it to resist bruising and browning over time in a way that other mushrooms can't. Because altering the mushroom doesn't include introducing foreign DNA from other organisms -- its own browning enzyme is simply "turned off" -- it isn't subject to the USDA's standard regulations on genetically modified foods.

When used correctly, CRISPR could go far beyond a prettier box of fungus. The uber-targeted technique allows scientists to cheaply and easily adjust a crop's own DNA, thereby possibly creating foods like drought-resistant corn or healthier tomatoes or foods that don't require pesticides during production. It can theoretically make crops that resist disease, harsh conditions and climate change, which as previously reported by The Huffington Post could help majorly curb world hunger by providing more usable food for the planet.

In other words, CRISPR could be the pathway to cheaper, healthier, more abundant crops for all. The new white button mushrooms in particular could help reduce waste because fewer would be bruised in production, and consumers would be able to keep them for use -- and out of the trash can -- for longer periods of time.

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The USDA confirmed their mushroom decision in a letter to the researcher at Pennsylvania State University who developed the white button variety.

But while plant scientist Yinong Yang now has USDA clearance to sell his new 'shroom, there's no guarantee it will hit stores anytime soon, according to MIT Technology Review. Consumers are generally wary of genetically modified foods despite scientific consensus that they're safe, and the mushroom company that helped fund Yang's research is "afraid of negative response regarding GMO from consumers," he said. It's a hot button issue that may keep the mushrooms out of grocery stores for a time to come, and Yang told Science News he would voluntarily seek FDA approval before any attempt to sell it.

If the mushroom ever does become mainstream, though, it could be a huge leap forward for food engineering... and maybe, eventually, even world hunger. Though there's a long way to go in the public opinion of genetically modified organisms, science is on the right track -- a track could be paved with mushrooms.

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