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Instead of Computer Code, ‘Plant Hackers’ Tinker With Genetics

After his parents go to bed, Sebastian Cocioba usually retires to the third bedroom of the family apartment, where he has built a laboratory.

here, amid the whir of climate-controlling fans and equipment harvested from eBay, he is working on what he hopes will one day become a lucrative career. Mr. Cocioba, 25 years old, is a plant hacker.

“I want to make flowers no one has ever seen,” he says, wearing shorts and a T-shirt on a recent day at his home in Queens, N.Y. “What would happen if you combined features of a pine tree with an eggplant?” He also wants to turn a rose blue.

Born into an earlier generation, Mr. Cocioba might have spent hours writing computer programs. Instead he is at the vanguard of a millennial niche: do-it-yourself bioengineering. In place of a keyboard, he has a homemade “gene gun” that fires genetic material into plants on a blast of tiny tungsten particles.

A growing coterie of plant hackers and synthetic biology startups have their sights set on creating some bizarre and wondrous creations: glowing plants, fragrant moss and flowers that change colors when you pour beer into the soil.

Such plants have long been possible, but the research and experimentation was time-consuming and expensive. The first glowing plants were invented by scientists trying to better understand genetics.

Antony Evans, 35, chief executive of Taxa, a Silicon Valley company launched last year as a platform for would-be plant designers, says such creations are part of a broader movement.

Close-ups of tomato plants grown from cuttings at the School of Visual Arts' Bio Art Lab. Mr. Cocioba uses common plants like tomatoes and tobacco to explore gene modification. PHOTO: BRADLEY HOPE/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I can see a future where genetic engineering becomes acceptable and commonplace, where some teenagers have ideas for plants and make them the same way kids make mobile apps today,” he said.

For plant hackers, no prize is bigger or more sought-after than the “true” blue rose.

“It’s a bit of a unicorn,” said Keira Havens, co-founder of Revolution Bioengineering in Fort Collins, Colo., a startup working with scientists on plant bioengineering projects. “It is elusive.”

Blue roses are available from some florists, but they aren’t “true” in the eyes of biologists because they are simply dyed. The mythical flower, which doesn’t exist in nature, has been pursued for centuries, with dubious claims as far back as the 12th century.

It is referred to in Chinese and Middle Eastern folk tales, as well as a Rudyard Kipling poem (“Half the world I wandered through/Seeking where such flowers grew/Half the world unto my quest/Answered me with laugh and jest.”)

In 1840, the horticulture societies of the U.K. and Belgium offered a 500,000 franc reward for a true blue rose, but no prize was awarded.

t is also thought to be the Holy Grail in the annual $10 billion cut-flower industry, where new and novel plants can earn big profits.

The closest anyone has come to creating a true blue rose is a Japanese whisky consortium, Suntory Holdings Ltd.

Suntory teamed up with Florigene, an Australian genetic engineering firm focusing on plants. The company, now known as Suntory Flowers Ltd., created the first purple carnations, sold across the world under names such as Moonshade and Moonvista.

In 2004, the firm announced it had finally cracked the code of the blue rose. But it turned out to only include blue pigments—a significant scientific achievement. To the human eye, it is lavender in color. The rose, called “Applause,” is only available in Japan, for $25 each. The company is continuing to try to make a bluer rose.

One of the biggest challenges is lowering the acidity of the plant so that the blue color can become more visible.

Mr. Cocioba is researching blue plants along with Suzanne Anker, an artist who uses biological material in her work and is the director of the Bio Art Lab at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

By day, Mr. Cocioba is a scientific consultant in the lab. In between student sessions, he has been experimenting with turning tobacco plants blue, using the DNA from a type of blue coral.

He is almost entirely self-taught. He studied biology at Stony Brook University, but dropped out. For several years, he cloned orchids—a process of growing new plants from pieces of other plants—to sell to local florists. Slowly he built up his lab and began to better understand the delicate process of altering plant DNA, mostly through reading online and discussing projects with other would-be plant hackers.

“It’s about democratizing science,” he says.

Another major target for biohackers are plants that glow using DNA from bioluminescent jellyfish or fireflies. The first such plants available to consumers produce only a very modest glow.

The “Starlight Avatar,” available for about $35 from Bioglow Inc., is a ghostly plant sent to buyers in a closed plastic container. Its glow can only be detected if taken into a pitch dark room for enough time for retinas to adjust to its faint emissions. It can’t be exposed to the air or sunlight without the risk of dying.

Alexander Krichevsky, 40, the research director of the company in St. Louis, said he is working on brighter, more-resilient plants. He says his main clients now are “people between 20 and 30 years old, usually with computer professions,” or major fans of the science-fiction film “Avatar,” which featured glowing plants in its fictional world of Pandora.

Mr. Evans, of Taxa, is also the founder of a company that raised $484,000 on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter for its glowing plant in 2013, but hasn’t delivered yet. He said delivery of glowing plant seeds to backers will start this year.

Next in production is a new kind of moss that smells like patchouli that could be a replacement for air fresheners one day.

After that, he too will make a go at the blue rose, he says.