College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

ABE graduate student embraces Midwest agricultural culture

Liz Luby
Liz Luby

Liz Luby studies how antibiotic resistance in manure affects Iowa agriculture

Raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Liz Luby worked as an undergraduate research assistant in biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech. Her boss suggested she attend graduate school and connected her with ISU associate professor Michelle Soupir. In those moments, Luby knew she would be coming to Iowa State.

Luby, who is a graduate student in agricultural and biosystems engineering, enjoys the agricultural culture in Iowa despite her metropolitan upbringing, “It’s really cool to see how big agriculture is and how much it controls.” She experiences that culture first-hand, conducting research in Nashua, Iowa.

Her research focuses on how manure application affects antibiotic resistance in soil bacteria, specifically the fate of these organisms in the soil and their ability to move off-site into surrounding waterways. Luby looks primarily at two families of resistance genes whose levels increase in manure samples from animals fed subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics. The genes are subsequently released into the environment during manure application.

The genes come from an animal’s stomach bacteria, and they primarily aren’t pathogenic, or capable of causing disease. However, because the genes are capable of being transferred to pathogenic bacteria existing in the environment, they may be then transferred to humans, making individuals immune to normal antibiotics.

Luby’s research was the first to demonstrate significantly higher concentrations of genes with antibiotic resistance in subsurface drainage from fields where manure was used compared to non-manure control fields. She presented this research when defending her master’s thesis.

After her research was accepted, Luby was invited to continue her graduate research and pursue a Ph.D. When she receives her doctorate in May 2017, she’ll be the first person in her family to receive a Ph.D.

In the future, Luby plans to work for the government, though her ultimate goal is to, “Improve public health by informing policy makers on the issues surrounding antibiotic resistance and invent ways to solve the associated problems.”