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USDA Clears RNAi-modified Potato, Alfalfa

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The US Department of Agriculture has deregulated two RNAi-modified crop plants, potato and alfalfa, deeming that they do not pose a risk to other plants and therefore are not subject to certain regulatory requirements.

The potatoes, known as Innate potatoes, were developed by JR Simplot and use RNAi to lower the levels of a compound called acrylamide, a human neurotoxicant and potential carcinogen that sometimes forms in potatoes under high-temperature cooking conditions such as deep frying. RNAi is also used to silence genes involved in the formation of black spot bruises, which can result during the handling of potatoes during harvest, transport, and processing.

The alfalfa, called HarvXtra alfalfa, uses the gene-silencing technology to reduce the synthesis of lignin, which decreases the digestability of the plant as it matures. Developed by Forage Genetics in collaboration with Monsanto, the alfalfa is designed to give growers more time to allow the plant to grow before it must be harvested.

In both cases, the USDA said that it evaluated the modified plants for their potential to "directly or indirectly injure or cause disease or damage" in or to any plant or plant product. Based on information supplied by the companies, as well as comments solicited from the public and scientific experts, it determined that Innate potatoes and HarvXtra alfalfa are "unlikely to pose a plant pest risk and therefore are no longer subject to our regulations governing the introduction of certain [genetically engineered] organisms."

In a statement, Simplot said that it is pleased with the determination and that it is awaiting completion of a review by the US Food and Drug Administration before licensing Innate potatoes to partners in limited test markets next year.

The Innate potato and HarvXtra alfalfa are not the first RNAi-modified food products to reach the US market. Monsanto previously developed a strain of soybeans called Vistive Gold that use the gene-silencing technology to yield trans-fat-free and reduced-saturated-fat oil.

Meanwhile, the USDA is currently reviewing an apple developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits that uses RNAi to eliminate browning.

The USDA's signing off on the two crops comes at a time when ag-bio firms are increasingly looking to RNAi to create plants with improved traits, which also is bringing increased scrutiny of the technology.

In response to the USDA's recent rulings, the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit that frequently challenges genetically engineered crops, contended that the agency is rushing RNAi forward, citing a recent Environmental Protection Agency panel review of the technology.

However, that review was related to the use of RNAi for insecticidal applications. Unlike with Innate potatoes or HarvXtra alfalfa, this application of the technology involves the transfer of dsRNA to other organisms to inhibit exogenous gene expression, rather than its use to silence endogenous genes.

As reported by Gene Silencing News, an EPA panel earlier this year found that there is likely to be little danger associated with the use of pesticidal RNAi to humans and other mammals. Still, it expressed concern over uncertainties about their potential effects on the environment and non-target insects.

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