U of R bacteria study takes poop to the roof

February 6, 2013 - 9:01pm
Dene McMartin clears the snow off one of the rooftop cowpies.  Courtney Mintenko/CJME News.
Dene McMartin clears the snow off one of the rooftop cowpies. Courtney Mintenko/CJME News.

A project at the University of Regina is taking poop to new heights.  Dubbed the "poop on the roof" project, it's testing how bacteria can survive in cow manure through a Saskatchewan winter.

The project was actually born out of a larger one based in Swift Current.  Dena McMartin, a member of the faculty of engineering, has been part of the project for almost four years along with a colleague and three grad students from the U of R.  Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, Water Security Agency of Saskatchewan and Agriculture Canada have been working with the U of R group and Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre (SPARC) to look at water and soil. 

"Our goal with the project overall is to provide farmers with really good information that helps them manage their farm better, increase their economic productivity while also preserving the environment and human safety," McMartin explained.

Over the years of collecting data from 14 field sites south of Moosomin, the team has discovered really high bacterial counts in the spring.

"One of the challenging things is that most of the theories around bacteria survival in Saskatchewan winters would tell you that they shouldn't be living."

McMartin and her team took on the task of trying to figure out why that is happening.

"So we put together this project on the roof of the classroom building so that we have an outdoor field site.  There's a weather station next to it so we know all the conditions the specimen is being subjected to."  The roof is a compromise between doing an experiment in the field and the lab.  Travelling to test samples near Moosomin left too many variables, and the lab did not give enough reality.

After getting permission from various departments at the U of R, one of McMartin's students began the task of collecting the dung.  The student took her sons with her to a farm and scooped up "fresh" specimen.

"They brought them back in sealed containers back to the city, put them in KitchenAid mixers in the lab - these beautiful mixers that can now never be used again - mixing it all up.  Then she put them into tiny little pie plates."  Now those 70 cow pies are sitting in the elements on the roof on top of double tarping, a layer of wooden pallets, and an extra layer of snow.

Already, the results have been surprising for McMartin's team.  She explained that E. coli comes from warm-blooded animals, and therefore thrives at body temperature around 37 degrees.  However, as temperatures dipped down, the microbes continued to survive, even with temperatures around -15 degrees.

"When we hit that -40 degrees or so last week, yes, they all died.  (Now we need to see) do they return?  Do they reactivate?  Or where might those microbes be coming from that we're seeing in the spring melt?"

The dung discs are monitored, with the internal temperature being recorded.  Every few days, five specimens are taken into the lab where they are broken up to see what microbes are surviving inside.

Since news spread about the rooftop discs of defecation, McMartin has been contacted by Health Canada, Agriculture Canada and Environment Canada all interested in using the results.

"The study actually has some interesting implications for farmers, for food safety and for water security."

However, there is a chance that the study may come to an end.  Funding runs out for the overall project on March 31.  While McMartin has applied for new grants to continue the work, she is still waiting to hear the result.  She adds that it has been very promising to gain the attention of federal agencies, and hopes some funding may follow.

"We're doing things that will impact Canada's economy, Saskatchewan's farmers and the health and safety of rural communities."  McMartin also credited her grad students for sticking with the project, even when they were deep in the dung.