July 31, 2011

Teen Scientist Experimenting With Kudzu Removal

Inspired by a sixth-grade science project, a teenager has developed a way to help combat kudzu, "an invasive plant that has overrun millions of acres of land throughout the Southeastern United States," according to a recent CNN.com report.

Kudzu was first brought into the US during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s as a way to combat erosion. These days, however, it has begun spreading out of control, overtaking 150,000 new acres of land each year.

According to CNN's Natalie Snedden, "in 1998, kudzu was listed by the U.S. Congress as a 'Federal Noxious Weed' and is estimated to cover over seven million acres of land in the U.S."

Enter 17-year-old Jacob Schindler.

Snedden reports that, as part of a grade school project that involved growing the angiosperm on Mars, Schindler began experimenting with different gases and discovered that helium killed the plant, but did not harm any of the growth around it.

"I started asking what would make it impossible to grow kudzu on Mars," he told the CNN.com reporter. "But what it really became is: How can I eliminate kudzu in an environmentally-friendly way?"

Eventually, he developed a device that includes a modified drill shaft attached to a helium tank. He uses it to drill into the ground and disperse the gas.

Schindler's mom, Julie, has applied for a patent on the device, which has drawn the attention of the scientific community--including Auburn University Assistant Professor of Agronomy Stephen Enloe, who is currently working with the teen on a research grant sponsored by the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA), Snedden reported.

"When I first heard about Jacob's ideas, I was a little skeptical," the professor, who has teamed with Schindler on laboratory experiments, said. "But the more I thought about it, I realized it could have some merit. Kudzu has large tubers and if the helium is choking out the oxygen, it could be suffocating them."

"In the meantime," Snedden said, "Schindler has been testing out using kudzu as an alternative food source for Georgia's Governor's Honor Program--a summer education project for talented high school students in the state."

Schindler told CNN that the roots could be used as an ingredient in wine, salad, cake and salsa, and that he was interested in trying to get it removed from the weed list and reinstated to the plant one. It can also be used as animal feed, and has been tested as a method to help treat Alzheimer's, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other medical conditions.

"Hopefully I've developed my future career," Schindler told Snedden. "If not, I've learned a lot of life skills: research, public speaking, making connections. It's opened a lot of doors for me. Otherwise, I would probably be home this summer, just washing the truck."


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