After his parents go to bed, Sebastian Cocioba usually retires to the third bedroom of the family apartment, where he has built a laboratory.
There, 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.
“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....
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...
Next in production is a new kind of moss that smells like patchouli that could be a replacement for air fresheners one day.