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Don't Call It Viral Marketing: The Story Behind Contagion's Microbial Billboard

The jury is still out on whether the star-studded viral outbreak movie Contagion will be a Hollywood blockbuster, but don't blame Patrick Hickey if it isn't. The Scottish mycologist recently led a team that used living bacteria and fungi to create two sinister-looking billboards meant to lure, or scare, people into seeing the movie. The microbes, seeded on stenciled letters in a pair of giant acrylic dishes, gradually grew to form the movie's title behind glass windows erected in an empty storefront in Toronto, where Contagion was premiering at a film festival. The billboards were erected in late August, but gained even greater international attention last week when a time-lapse video showing how the project was done, and the eerie result, was placed on YouTube. "We picked [microbes] that would look dangerous," says Hickey. "It's a fusion of art and science."

Hickey, who is director of innovation at a company called NIPHT, worked with the British firm CURB Media on the Contagion project, having teamed up with them in the past on marketing efforts using bioluminescent fungi and bacteria. He and colleagues typically spend considerable time in a lab investigating how various microbes will grow, and look, before moving out into the field. "It takes us a few weeks to see how fast things grow under certain conditions," says Hickey. "There's a lot of R&D going on." This time, however, he was given such short notice that his team was still testing ideas back in Edinburgh, and e-mailing him photos, as he flew to Toronto.

Hickey says the 35 or so microbes used in the Contagion billboards were obtained from suppliers in Canada -- he thought better of carrying luggage filled with bacterial and fungal containers on a flight to North America. Canadian officials provided a list of potentially dangerous microbes that were forbidden, but Hickey says he employed harmless ones, many available in school kits. Once in Toronto, he, staff members at the Canadian advertising agency Lowe Roche, and a local construction crew built and installed the 6-foot-long by 2-foot-high Petri dishes, filling each with about 10 liters of a growth-promoting agar gel. (The team has asked the Guinness World Records to investigate if these are the largest-ever Petri dishes.) One billboard was primarily composed of the same kind of fungi that produces penicillin and the other of several bacteria. Hickey is reluctant to reveal his team's "trade secrets," but he acknowledges that the billboard's striking blood-like color comes from the red-pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens. Some of the visual impact was due to chance, he adds; bacteria and mold from the outside air also took hold in each billboard before they were sealed.

Hickley had to fly back to Scotland before he saw the end result of his work, so he was even impressed by the time-lapse video. "I was amazed how it grew," he says. Ironically, Hickey admits he still hasn't seen Contagion. It premieres in the United Kingdom next month.