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Challenges in the measurement of antibiotics and in evaluating their impacts in agroecosystems: A critical review

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Published copy (DOI)


  • Diana S. Aga
  • Melissa Lenczewski
  • Daniel D. Snow
  • Johanna Muurinen
  • J. Brett Sallach
  • Joshua S. Wallace


Publication details

JournalJournal of environmental quality
DatePublished - 1 Mar 2016
Issue number2
Number of pages13
Pages (from-to)407-419
Original languageEnglish


Large quantities of antibiotics are used in agricultural production, resulting in their release to agroecosystems through numerous pathways, including land application of contaminated manure, runofffrom manure-fertilized fields, and wastewater irrigation of croplands. Antibiotics and their transformation products (TPs) exhibit a wide range of physico-chemical and biological properties and thus present substantive analytical challenges. Advances in the measurement of these compounds in various environmental compartments (plants, manure, soil, sediment, and water) have uncovered a previously unrealized landscape of antibiotic residues. These advanced multiresidue methods, designed to measure subng g-1 concentrations in complex mixtures, remain limited by the inherent intricacy of the sample matrices and the difficultly in eliminating interferences that affect antibiotic detection. While efficient extraction methods combined with high sensitivity analysis by liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry can provide accurate quantification of antibiotics and their TPs, measured concentrations do not necessarily reflect their bioavailable fractions and effects in the environment. Consequently, there is a need to complement chemical analysis with biological assays that can provide information on bioavailability, biological activity, and effects of mixtures. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA), often used as screening tools for antibiotic residues, may be useful for detecting the presence of structurally related antibiotic mixtures but not their effects. Other tools, including bioreporter assays, hold promise in measuring bioavailable antibiotics and could provide insights on their biological activity. Improved assessment of the ecological and human health risks associated with antibiotics in agroecosystems requires continued advances in analytical accuracy and sensitivity through improvements in sample preparation, instrumentation, and screening technologies.

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