by Natalia Bateman, August, 2019

Maria Ermakova’s first attraction to science was not towards plants – her current focus – but towards bacteria. “My two grandmothers worked in medicine and as a child I was told many stories about that invisible and fascinating world, which you can only perceive through the huge effects it can have on us.”

Dr Maria Ermakova with Setaria plants. Credit: Natalia Bateman, CoETP

These stories were pivotal in her decision to study biology as an undergraduate degree. She moved to Yekaterinburg (Russia) to study at the Ural State University. It was there that an excellent lecturer inspired her to study molecular plant biology. “People often don’t think of molecular biology in relation to plants. This was an eye-opening course. From there, I knew I wanted to study plant molecular biology,” Maria says.

“I decided that my undergraduate project would focus on the regulation of plant responses to drought stress.” Since then, dissecting the regulation and control of plant processes became the major interest of Maria’s career.

Maria’s adventures abroad started in 2010. She moved to Finland where she lived for five years, obtaining a PhD degree at the University of Turku, which is well-known for their research in evolution of photosynthesis’ regulation, ranging from cyanobacteria, mosses and conifers to flowering plants.

“My PhD project was about regulation of photosynthesis in cyanobacteria. These microorganisms are like free-living versions of the chloroplasts you find inside plants, so that makes them a really interesting model to study photosynthesis”, Maria says.

Cyanobacteria are ancient one-cell organisms that evolved millions of years ago when the atmosphere on the planet was free of oxygen. They are responsible of creating oxygenic photosynthesis, using an electron transport chain to extract energy from sun light. The same pathway is still used in all the green organisms that use photosynthesis now.

When plants or bacteria absorb a photon from sunlight, a molecule inside the reaction center of the chloroplast changes, and an electron inside the molecule moves to a higher energy level. Molecules in this state are unstable, so they transfer the excited electron like a hot potato, from one molecule to another creating an electron transport chain. Maria’s PhD’s focus was the role of electron transport chain’s role in the acclimation of cyanobacteria to different environmental conditions.

After finishing her PhD, Maria decided it was time for a change as she wanted to move to a more applied research.

“Working with cyanobacteria is sometimes tricky. They are very responsive to every small change in their environment. After working with cyanobacteria during my PhD, I felt I wanted to move to plants, to a research area closer to the field, to the consumer, to a more translational type of work,” she says.

The model plant Setaria viridis.

“So at the end of my PhD, I found the opportunity to work at the Centre for Translational Photosynthesis, which was the perfect fit because I could work in electron transport, but more applied research. In addition to this, I am working with C4 photosynthesis, which is very interesting.”

Maria found herself working at the slower pace of crop plants, which she thinks are not only more stable and predictable, but easier to relate than the quick reacting cyanobacteria.

“My current research focuses on the complicated set of reactions that regulate photosynthesis. It is a very fascinating area. Plants have developed this amazing machinery that can preserve sunlight energy, but because this process is so complex, it also has potential catastrophic effects for plants. For example, if there is too much light, photosynthesis can get out of control and stress plants to the point of killing them,” she says.

In this sense, photosynthesis is like having a nuclear reactor inside your living room. Plants have evolved a whole world of mechanisms and reactions to keep the dangers of photosynthesis under control.

Maria is now considered the expert in electron transport at the Centre for Translational Photosynthesis in Canberra. “In a recent published paper, we essentially show that electron transport does matter for C4 plants and that this research area deserves more interest. We have demonstrated that improving electron transport has a potential of increasing yield of C4 crop plants,” she says.

“Although I am one of the few people working on electron transport, being a part of the Centre has given me a unique, more holistic perspective. I can now see how our research can be applied not only inside one cell or inside one leaf, but to the whole plant level and canopy level, and finally how this results in changes in yield, as the end product.”