Getting to the Root of an Invasive Plant

Undergraduate research project seeks to identify the reason Japanese Knotweed halts the growth of surrounding flora.
Student working in the greenhouse on campus

Adam Graziano is partnering his two fields of study — environmental science and chemistry — to conduct an original undergraduate research project. In 2023, Graziano received a grant from the Rochester Academy of Sciences for his study on Japanese Knotweed – an invasive plant species that inhibits the growth of other flora.

“They gave me an award that I was able to use to purchase the chemicals and equipment I’m using to do all of this,” Graziano said.

“If we find emodin is contributing to the invasion, it means local restoration efforts need to consider the lasting presence of emodin in the soil.”
Adam Graziano

Graziano theorizes that the issue with the plant is emodin – a compound that releases into the soil and deters surrounding plants from growing. While it is clear Japanese Knotweed contains emodin, the question is does it contain enough to be a problem?

“If we find emodin is contributing to the invasion, it means local restoration efforts need to consider the lasting presence of emodin in the soil,” Graziano said. “A lot of people will just kill the plant or cut it down, but if these chemicals are actually in the soil then that’s not as restorative as we think it is.”

Graziano is using the High Performance Liquid Chromatography Machine (HPLC) in the chemistry lab to test his theory. This unique instrument separates the compounds within a substance into their distinctive parts, allowing each to be individually observed and measured.

“We load our samples and we’re running a solvent through a column, and it basically separates the different compounds so we can analyze and quantify them easier,” said Graziano.

Associate Professor Robert LeSuer, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, emphasized the importance of undergraduate students learning to use this particular instrument.

High Performance Liquid Chromatography Machine

High Performance Liquid Chromatography Machine

“Learning how to use an HPLC can be extremely valuable for science majors, as it provides them with a critical skill set for conducting independent research,” said LeSuer. “It can greatly enhance a student’s research capabilities and open up opportunities for internships, employment, and further academic pursuits in various scientific disciplines.”

Regular collaboration between the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry made it possible for Graziano to pursue research that is important to him.

“There’s quite a lot of overlap [between the programs]. A lot of people think environmental science is just field work and you’re always outside,” Graziano said. “But for environmental science majors, it’s important in our future to be able to analyze samples of soil and plants. My project is a little bit of both worlds.”