Gagan Sidhu, Ph.D. '11, left, and Luc Mathis, of Meiogenix, examine seed specimens in a growth lab.

Ag genetics startup Meiogenix joins McGovern Center

Meiogenix, a next-generation technology startup that helps agricultural crops – through chromosome editing – find their own genetic solutions, has joined Cornell’s McGovern Center business incubator.

The company aims to help plant breeders increase the speed and precision by helping crops boost yield, repel pests, thwart disease and strengthen quality traits. The new home in the McGovern Center will provide a U.S. base for the company, which is headquartered in France.

“We are speeding up nature’s work,” said Luc Mathis, CEO of Meiogenix. “Agriculture must adjust to climate change and move away from adding chemicals to fields. In the case of what we do, there is no foreign DNA in the final products, and even no mutation – it’s completely natural.”

Joining Mathis at the company is Gagan Sidhu, Ph.D. ‘11, who leads the genomics and traits group at Meiogenix. It was her Cornell doctoral research on cell biology and recombination in maize that earned the attention of Meiogenix scientists.

In the mid-19th century, Gregor Mendel experimented with peas to find desirable characteristics by “crossing” them – a biological tool that was in use for almost 200 years. Then, over the last two decades, genetic engineering technology shortened Mendel’s process.

Now, Meiogenix focuses on the molecular and recombination process. Rather than manipulate individual genes, it allows the meiosis – a cellular reproduction process – to rapidly guide superior traits.

“Plants already have the genes to solve the problems,” said Wojtek Pawlowski, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who is a research adviser to Meiogenix. “They just need help accessing them.”

While gene editing techniques like CRISPR focus on small changes by editing DNA in a gene, Meiogenix uses chromosome editing to enable targeted breeding for complex traits like yield, disease tolerance, health and quality.

“We want to help bring sustainable, diverse and economically viable healthy food to the market with this new style of plant breeding,” Mathis said.

In early 2020, Meiogenix began working with Bayer, the crop science giant, to develop plant breeding and genome editing technologies. Around the same time, the company partnered with Cornell to improve maize. As the company joins the McGovern Center, they will focus on advancing tomatoes and other field crops.

“Meiogenix’ technology has the potential to achieve the same – or better – fast plant improvements that can be produced by genetic engineering, without the genetic engineering. Using natural meiotic processes, they’ll be able to help feed the future  world,” said Lou Walcer, director of the McGovern Center. “We are thrilled to have them here at Cornell.”

The European unit of Meiogenix is focused on basic research, collaborating with academic groups at CIRAD, the Curie Institute and Hamburg University. The Meiogenix U.S. operation – based at the McGovern Center incubator, which will give the company access to Cornell academic and research resources – will focus on commercial development.

With its new patents and strong investor support, the company starts fresh.

“For Meiogenix, it’s a restart,” he said. “Which is why we joined the Cornell campus. McGovern is a life sciences incubator within the world’s top agricultural university. We are getting access to a unique network and it is the perfect environment for us. It also builds trust with our partners.”

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Lindsey Knewstub