Did the Irish Famine Trigger Mental Illness?

Can severe nutritional deprivation cause health problems that last into future generations? According to Irish Central, the idea is not so far-fetched, in that new studies of gene expression are showing that epigenetic changes in one generation can affect the genetic code passed down to future generations. To support the idea, one researcher referenced the high number of Irish citizens who ended up in asylums during the country’s 19th century famine. Opposing views, however, pointed out that an Irish law with loose definitions of who should be confined to an asylum also contributed to the number.

It’s true that loose laws may very well have contributed to the number of “mentally ill” people in Ireland during this tragic time in history, but at the same time this story serves as a warning to those who think the new gene-editing technologies of today will have no negative consequences on the future. CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, is at the most basic level a very precise way of tinkering with genes, and the repercussions could be great when you consider all the possible things that could go wrong.

In fact, a recent study has shown that CRSPR leads to hundreds of unexpected mutations, raising concerns that testing CRISPR in humans may be premature. One thing that may surprise you, though, is that CRISPR and other gene-editing tools are already being used in the food industry. Gene-edited crops, in which DNA is tweaked or snipped out at a precise location, have been created — and are being eaten every day.

Unlike genetically engineered (GE) foods, which may have genes from other species inserted, there is nothing taken out of or added into gene-edited plants.

It also may surprise you to learn that foods produced via gene-editing are not subject to regulation by the USDA or other regulatory agencies — although an advisory board advised that gene-edited foods could not be labeled organic. To date, the technology has been used to produce soybeans with altered fatty acid profiles, potatoes that take longer to turn brown and potatoes that remain fresher longer and do not produce carcinogens when fried.

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