2016 Magazine - Gold

The gene editing technique called CRISPR is much in the news, but the judges praised Hall’s piece for not only explaining the powerful new technique but also using a very specific example– preventing the decay of store-bought mushrooms – to show how the new science may be having its most profound and least publicized effect in agriculture. “By the fall of 2015, about 50 scientific papers had been published reporting uses of CRISPR in gene-edited plants, and there are preliminary signs that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one of the agencies that assess genetically modified agricultural products, does not think all gene-edited crops require the same regulatory attention as ‘traditional’ genetically modified organisms or GMOs,” Hall wrote.  Because the gene-editing does not involve introducing foreign genes into the plants, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service decided in 2015 that the crops do not need to be regulated as GMOs, Hall noted. With the regulatory door even slightly ajar, companies are rushing to get gene-edited crops into fields and, ultimately, onto store shelves, he said. One plant biologist has proposed that gene-editing methods can be used to “rewild” food plants by resurrecting traits that have been lost during generations of agricultural breeding. Although CRISPR is more precise than traditional plant breeding, it is not infallible, according to Hall. “Off-target” cuts in the genome have raised safety concerns, particularly for any efforts to edit human sperm and egg cells (a prospect widely decried as unethical). Researchers say that refinements to CRISPR are improving the specificity of the technique. “Of all the CRISPR stories I’ve read, this stood out as both informative and engaging,” said U.K.-based freelancer Angela Saini. “It is just excellent.” Hall said he had been looking for an agriculture-related CRISPR story. “My ears pricked up when I was on the phone with Yinong Yang and he mentioned that he had done gene-editing on mushrooms to slow the process of browning,” Hall said. “I do a lot of cooking (and cook a lot with mushrooms), so it made more of a palpable, cutting-board connection with me than other CRISPR-altered crops like rice or potatoes. I hadn’t done a genetic engineering/agriculture story since a 1987 piece for Smithsonian on efforts to develop frost-resistant crops, so it seemed like a good time to circle back.”