“When I saw these fireflies, I couldn’t believe my eyes.” Those words are strangely evocative of the opening lines of the Owl City song "Fireflies," but they are, in fact, the words of mycologist Patrick Hickey as he recalls a research workshop he attended in Italy when he was 25 years old. It was his first encounter with the glowing bugs.
The resemblance between Hickey's career and the Owl City song goes further. Bioluminescence plays a role in both, and the two share a dreamlike quality that gets stronger the further along you go.
Hickey’s interest in bioluminescence was sparked years before that Italian research workshop. During his final year of high school, Hickey, who was committed to pursuing an art career, stumbled across a photograph of bioluminescent fungi. The photograph inspired a collection of oil paintings he prepared for a Scottish Certificate of Education art and design course.
He didn't get into art college, so he pursued his scientific interest in fungi instead, studying for a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences at the University of Edinburgh, followed by a Ph.D. in mycology. “There’s just something strangely mysterious and captivating about fungi,” he says.
At this point in Hickey's story, glowing fungi photographs recur: During his Ph.D., he optimized techniques for photographing and filming fungal cells as they grew. “I pioneered creating time-lapse videos in our lab before many people were doing video microscopy,” he says. When, in 2000, he published images and time-lapse movies of bioluminescent fungi on a Web site, he was surprised by the amount of interest it garnered. “A lot of people, from schools, universities, and commercial labs, started writing to me to ask for cultures so that they could grow the fungi as well,” he says. Hickey, who is now 36, decided that his fungi had commercial potential.
Glow-in-the-dark fungi kits
Soon after that, Hickey attended a seminar on entrepreneurship at his university, organized by the Edinburgh Technology Fund (ETF). Another nudge toward entrepreneurship came when ETF ran a business plan competition. “I thought this sounded like a lot of fun, and a challenge,” Hickey says. So he designed a procedure to screen water samples for environmental toxicity using bioluminescent fungi -- and won the £10,000 prize.
The prize money helped Hickey launch his first company, LUX Biotechnology, as he finished writing his Ph.D. thesis. But before he could package his screening system into a ready-to-use kit, he had to thoroughly test and evaluate the prototype. “This required a lot more work than I had anticipated, particularly in demonstrating reproducible results and ensuring kits had a long shelf life,” Hickey says. Meanwhile, he supported himself with a part-time lecturing position and some paid laboratory work at the university. “There were options to pursue postdoctoral positions, which would have been more secure, but the prospect of commercializing the technology was much more appealing,” Hickey says.
By 2003, Hickey had secured a £500,000 investment from a syndicate of local investors in Edinburgh. He rented space and hired a manager, two R&D scientists, and a technician. But when the new investors became involved, Hickey says, the business started to drift from his original vision. “If you are looking for significant funding from investors, you have to be prepared to give up a large chunk of the company,” Hickey says. That can mean a loss of control.
In 2006, he left LUX Biotechnology (now called LUX Assure) to found another company, called NIPHT (Novel Imaging and Photonic Technologies). This time he invested his own money: personal savings and proceeds from the sale of his LUX Biotechnology shares. He also decided to switch fields to pursue electronics -- another of his interests at school -- to create intelligent LED technology for academia and industry.
But the bioluminescent fungi proved hard to drop. “Initially, NIPHT was consulting in imaging and lighting, but I had such a demand for the bioluminescent fungi that I decided to develop them into a commercial product and include [them] as a small branch of the company,” Hickey says. These glow-in-the-dark fungi kits are sold for decoration and for science education. “When the fungi are fruiting, you can pick the mushrooms and keep them in a jar and they will give off a wonderful green glow for a month or two,” he says.
A star turn
Hickey’s career took an unexpected turn a couple of years ago when CURB Media, an agency that creates advertising campaigns for client companies using natural and sustainable media, contacted him. CURB Media found out about Hickey's work with bioluminescent fungi from a blog post on the Scottish Institute for Enterprise Web site. CURB Media was eager to collaborate, writes CEO Anthony Ganjou in an e-mail to Science Careers. “Patrick's knowledge and intimate understanding of his field made it clear he was the right partner for us.”
At first, Hickey and CURB spent time getting to know each other via a series of small projects, such as a company Christmas card that used bioluminescence. The opportunity to collaborate on a major project came about 2 years later, when a Canadian marketing agency asked CURB Media to create a ‘living poster’ for the premiere of Contagion, a medical thriller that follows the spread of a lethal virus around the world. “[The agency] approached us with what they felt was an impossible brief, but with Patrick's knowledge we had the whole project mapped out within 24 hours,” Ganjou says. Hickey decided to use bioluminescent bacteria in addition to his beloved fungi, as they glow in different ways. “Fungi aren’t quite as bright but they glow for a few months, whereas the bacteria emit an incredibly intense light and they only glow at their brightest for 3 days,” Hickey says.
• The Edinburgh Technology Fund is no longer running, but the University of Edinburgh has a new scheme for young entrepreneurs called LAUNCH.ed.
Over the following 2 weeks, Hickey led a team of six creative professionals from the marketing agency -- artists who, needless to say, had never worked with this media before. They experimented to find the best combination of microbes to create the desired visual effect as the bugs emerged to reveal the film’s title. A crew from a set building company was brought in to make Hickey’s Petri dish billboards a reality.
Hickey returned to the United Kingdom shortly after seeing his billboards installed in a shop window in Toronto, Canada, where Contagion was premiering. He watched the project come to fruition -- literally -- via a time-lapse video posted on YouTube. “It sent shivers down my spine, particularly with the thrilling soundtrack. It was wonderful to see the installations in their full glory,” Hickey says. The video has been viewed more than 460,000 times.
The publicity surrounding the billboard secured a consulting gig for Hickey on a science documentary for BBC Television called After Life, which follows the decay of household goods. “I was called in to do some work on the fungi side and to help them film the time-lapse sequences and lab-based scenes,” he explains. The work gave him a chance to brush up the video editing skills he had learned during his Ph.D.
Hickey now sees the circle is closing as his science leads him back to art. In 2010, he co-created The Secret Sounds of Spores with musician Yann Seznec, in a project funded by a New Media Scotland Alt-w award. “The spores falling from a mushroom resemble rain drops, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to use this phenomenon to trigger sounds and light,” Hickey explains.
Hickey is eager to pursue other projects at the interface of art and science. “At school, I aspired to becoming an artist, yet made the difficult decision to study science,” he says. “I am extremely lucky to now have the opportunity to collaborate with artists and work on some wonderful installations.”
Sarah Reed is a freelance science writer based in Cambridge, U.K.