Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata) is a noxious, invasive weed in the U.S. that presents a significant threat to native biodiversity. Since its introduction ~130 years ago, this legume has literally engulfed thousands of square miles and cost millions of dollars in eradication measures. Considering its economic and ecological impact, it is surprisingly understudied. This project will integrate the efforts of citizen scientists, graduate and undergraduate students, and collaborating scientists from four Asian countries to examine the evolutionary history, taxonomy, and genetic diversity of the genus Pueraria in an effort to understand invasiveness in the kudzu species complex and determine how Pueraria species relate to other legumes, including several of economic importance such as soybean (Glycine max) and jicama (Pachyrhizus erosus). Extensive fieldwork will be integrated with genetic and geographic analyses to determine how many introductions of kudzu have taken place in the U.S., from what genetic source(s), and how genetic diversity and interplay within and among Pueraria species and populations have influenced range expansion.
This work will integrate education and research to provide educational opportunities for K-12, post-secondary students and the public through programs connected with Earth Day Activities, A Time for Science Nature Center, citizen science, and an innovative ecotourism venture within Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Results may aid in kudzu eradication efforts by informing management practices.