First, the microorganisms were seeded onto stenciled letters in a pair of giant acrylic dishes. Then they gradually grew to form the movie’s title behind glass windows erected in an empty storefront in Toronto, where the film premiered.
“It’s a fusion of art and science,” says mycologist Patrick Hickey who led the team. For this project, they picked microbes that “look dangerous,” but were actually harmless (many are available in school kits).
The billboards had been up since late August, but it gained international attention last week with a viral – no, not viral… rather, microbial – YouTube video. (Viruses and bacteria are not the same.) Watch the time-lapse video of the project and its unappetizing result:
Hickey, the director of innovation at a company called NIPHT, worked with the British firm CURB Media on the Contagion project. The team had previously worked on marketing efforts using bioluminescent fungi and bacteria.
After investigating in a lab how various microbes will grow and look, they move 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.” They tested ideas in Edinburgh and got the 35 or so microbes used from Canada (rather than carrying baggage filled with microbial containers on a transatlantic flight).
Once in Toronto, Hickey, 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. After culturing the dishes with microbes, they let time do the rest.
More fun details:
- One billboard was mainly composed of the same kind of fungi that produces penicillin and the other of several bacteria.
- The striking blood-like color comes from the red-pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens.
- Bacteria and mold from the outside air also took hold in each billboard before they were sealed, adding to the visual impact.