Poop on roof study helps understanding of E. coli bacteria

Researchers in Regina are using cow manure set atop a roof to study how E. coli — a potentially deadly strain of bacteria — is able to survive through winter.

Pucks of manure set outside to check cold-weather hardiness of E. coli

Researchers at the University of Regina study E. coli using a roof top laboratory, Bonnie Allen reports. 2:01
Cow manure, formed into puck shapes, was set outside to see what effect the winter cold would have on E. coli bacteria. (Courtesy Samar Baker/University of Regina)

Researchers in Regina are using cow manure set atop a roof to study how E. coli — a potentially deadly strain of bacteria — is able to survive through winter.

"We have been made fun of," Dena McMartin, a professor at the University of Regina, told CBC News recently, noting what punsters have said about the project. "I have a crappy job. This is called poop on the roof, or elevated excrement."

While the experiments has attracted scatological jokes, the study of E. coli is important.

"Quite frankly, the results could have some fairly serious implications for farming, meat handling [and] water processing," McMartin said.

The research, with support from federal grants, started four years ago.

The setting for much of the work has been the flat-top roof of the Classroom Building at the U of R and the farm fields of southern Saskatchewan.

Researchers have been to the farms to collect and analyze cow manure. Then samples are set out on the roof, open to the elements, to see what happens.

The results are compared to manure observed in the farm fields.

"Part of why we're doing this in Saskatchewan is because we have this very extreme climate, and quite frankly, if E. coli can survive here, they'll survive anywhere," McMartin said.

The researchers have already determined that when the temperature drops to below -15 C, no E. coli is found in their roof-top samples.

However, in the field samples the researchers found the bacteria — while dormant in the cold — returned to life as the temperature warmed up.

"At about  -15 degrees Celsius, we think they're dead," McMartin said. "We've proven that with the poop on the roof project. But in the field, again it's getting warm out there and all of a sudden we have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of E.coli in spring melt water."

Samar Baker is one of the researchers examining cow manure atop a roof at the University of Regina. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Samar Baker, a Ph.D. student working on the experiments, says their findings are important because of the danger posed when E. coli gets into a water supply or food.

"I have little children," Baker said. "This worries me, them catching any diseases or sicknesses."

McMartin said they have determined that E. coli is a stubborn bacteria that seems to be able to survive freezing cold.

Another finding is that the bacteria is capable of finding its way, far from cattle, into water sources.

While the study has yielded valuable data, McMartin says important questions linger.

"We haven't quite figured out why the E.coli are coming back in such big numbers in the spring melt," she said.

The project lead is Dr. Barbara Cade-Menun who is a scientist at SPARC, the Semi-arid Prairie Agriculture Research Centre, based in Swift Current.

The Regina experiments are part of an overall program of research that was completed for $1.16 million.

The manure samples were retrieved from 14 sites on farms in the Whitewood and Moosomin areas.

With files from CBC's Bonnie Allen