Maria Hrmova

Professor Maria Hrmova


School of Agriculture, Food and Wine

Faculty of Sciences, Engineering and Technology

Professional interests – my expertise is in the multidisciplinary field of structural biochemistry and biophysics.

Research in my group resulted in publishing around 160 peer-reviewed articles and patents on mechanisms explaining enzyme catalysis and plant abiotic stress tolerance. Our papers have appeared in the top-tier journals Nature Communications, Science, Communications Biology, American Chemical Society, Biotechnology Advances, Plant Cell and Current Opinion in Plant Biology, Plant Journal, and Biochemical Society Transactions. Our papers received ~7,000 citations and 16 papers were featured on the front covers.

My group investigates molecular mechanisms that underpin the function of plant proteins in three major areas:

We focus on catalytic mechanisms of plant exohydrolytic and xyloglucan xyloglucosyl transferase enzymes. With exohydrolases using high-resolution X-ray crystallography, enzyme kinetics, mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy, and multi-scale 3D molecular modelling, we discovered the glucose product displacement mechanism and how it is linked to the catalytic cycle. This newly described ‘substrate-product assisted processive catalytic’ mechanism represents a series of events, where on productive substrate binding near the active site, the entrapped glucose product modifies its binding patterns and evokes the formation of a temporary lateral cavity, which serves as a conduit for glucose departure to allow for the next catalytic cycle. This path enables efficient catalysis via multiple hydrolytic events without the enzyme losing contact with oligo- or polysaccharides. This discovery has significance in biotechnology to engineer enzymes that could be resistant to glucose product inhibition. This work was published in Nature Communications.

With xyloglucan xyloglucosyl transferases we engineered the acceptor substrate specificity in nasturtium enzymes and in barley isoforms we discovered that they catalysed the covalent bond formation between the xyloglucan donor and the penta-galacturonide acceptor – the homogalacturonan (pectin) fragment. This work was published in Plant Molecular Biology and Plant Journal.

My laboratory is focused on the structural and functional properties of plant borate and HKT (High-affinity Potassium Transporter) Na+/K+ transporters and unorthodox and multifunctional aquaporins. By combining in silico and in vitro methods, we discovered that borate transporters mediate Na+-dependent anion transport and exhibit channel-like characteristics. This work was published in Plant Cell and Plant Physiology.

With HKT transporters, we constructed the 3D structural model for Na+-exclusion in rice and explained that variations in salt tolerance can be explained by transcription, alternative splicing, and a protein structure. We clarified a long-standing question, how the structural variations in wheat HKT proteins underpin differences in Na+ transport capacity; this work was highlighted on the front cover of Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences and published in Plant Cell & Environment and Communications Biology.

We perform extensive 3D molecular modelling studies of transcription factors in complex with DNA cis-elements, such as bZIP, HDZip, DREB, ERF, NFY-YB, CBF, and MYB, and validate these DNA-binding properties in vitro. We engineered wheat transcription factor variants and in breakthrough science, using genetically engineered plants, we showed that these modifications changed DNA recognition and plant responses to drought and frost. Our work was highlighted on the front covers of Plant Biotechnology Journal, Plant Molecular Biology and Journal of Experimental Botany.

Using a combination of biology, biochemistry, biophysics, bioinformatics and computational chemistry techniques, including  multi-scale molecular modelling of nanoscale reactant movements in a plant exohydrolytic enzyme, we have discovered a remarkable phenomenon during initial and final catalytic events near the surface of this enzyme. The enzyme formed a transient cavity, which allowed the trapped glucose product to escape to allow for the next round of catalysis. This path enables "substrate-product assisted processive catalysis" through multiple hydrolytic events without the enzyme losing contact with oligo- or polymeric substrates. We anticipate that such enzyme plasticity could be prevalent among exo-hydrolases.

Our discovery the substrate-product assisted processive catalysis has significance in for the multibillion dollar biomedical, pharmaceutical, chemical and biotechnology industries to engineer enzymes that could be used efficiently outside of biological systems.

This work was published in Nature Communications.

Streltsov VA, Luang S, Peisley A, Varghese JN, Ketudat Cairns JR, Fort S, Hijnen M, Tvaroška I, Ardá A, Jiménez-Barbero J, Alfonso-Prieto M, Rovira C, Mendoza F, Tiessler-Sala L, Sánchez-Aparicio S-E, Rodríguez-Guerra J, Lluch JM, Maréchal J-D, Masgrau L, Hrmova M* (2019) Discovery of processive catalysis by an exo-hydrolase with a pocket-shaped active site. Nature Communications 10, 1-17; DOI: https: // *Corresponding author.

Press Release to this article can be seen here .

A movie describing the newly discovered catalytic mechanism can be seen here :

Movie description:

Molecular animation of the sequence of events involving the glucose product entrapment, incoming substrate binding and glucose displacement in a plant exo-hydrolase HvExoI, and how this sequence of events underlies substrate-product assisted processive catalysis. The movie shows the entrapped glucose molecule in the -1 subsite of the active site, through twelve residues located on seven loops. After the incoming β-D-glucopyranosyl-(1,3)-D-glucose substrate binds in the +1 and putative +2 subsites, the glucose product adjusts its binding patterns and traverses from the -1 subsite through rotations of Arg158 and Asp285 sidechains and associated backbone atoms, into the autonomous and transient lateral cavity, from where it advances through the aperture into the bulk solvent. The video was prepared in Chimera (Pettersen, E. F. et al. J. Comput. Chem. 25, 1605-1612; 2004), using the HD Movie Maker tool.

  • Appointments

    Date Position Institution name
    2010 - ongoing Professor (Research Only) University of Adelaide
  • Awards and Achievements

    Date Type Title Institution Name Country Amount
    2012 Award Elected a member of the Learned Society of Slovak Academy of Sciences, Slovak Republic Comenius University Slovakia
  • Language Competencies

    Language Competency
    Czech Can read, write, speak, understand spoken and peer review
    English Can read, write, speak, understand spoken and peer review
    German Can read, write and understand spoken
    Slovak Can read, write, speak, understand spoken and peer review
  • Education

    Date Institution name Country Title
    2010 - 2012 Comenius University Slovakia Doctor Scientiarum (DrSci) in Chemistry
    1978 - 1981 Comenius University in Bratislava Slovakia PhD
    1976 - 1978 Comenius University Slovakia Master of Science (MSc) in Biochemistry
    1974 - 1975 Comenius University Slovakia Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biochemistry
  • Certifications

    Date Title Institution name Country
    2012 Doctor Scientiarum Comenius University in Bratislava Slovakia
  • Research Interests

Research in my laboratory has been funded by grants from the Australian Research Council, by the Grains Research & Development Corporation, the South Australian Government, the Waite Research Institute of the University of Adelaide, DuPont Pioneer and by the Australian Synchrotron Research Program. The latter is supported by the Commonwealth of Australia under the Major National Research Facilities Program.

I have successfully completed supervisions of 25 doctoral (PhD), masters (MSc) and honours (BSc) candidatures by research. My students have received a variety of awards: Best Presentation in Plant Science and runner up for the Max Tate Award (in-house Annual Postgraduate Symposium), People’s Choice (3-minute PhD thesis competition), Travelling Scholarship to Cambridge University (Barr Smith Foundation), the KP Barley Prize for PhD thesis excellence (Faculty of Sciences), and CJ Everald and GRDC top-up scholarships.

  • Past Higher Degree by Research Supervision (University of Adelaide)

    Date Role Research Topic Program Degree Type Student Load Student Name
    2012 - 2016 Co-Supervisor Characterization of Wheat Cuticle and Wheat Cuticle-Related Transcription Factor Genes in Relation to Drought Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Miss Huihui Bi
    2011 - 2015 Principal Supervisor Structural and functional properties of a borate efflux transporter from barley Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Dr Yagnesh Nagarajan
    2008 - 2017 Co-Supervisor The Evolutionary History and Dynamics of the Cellulose Synthase Superfamily Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Dr Julian Schwerdt
    2004 - 2008 Co-Supervisor Characterisation of PpMDHARs and PpENA1 From the Moss, Physcomitrella patens Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Mr Damian Drew
    1997 - 2002 Co-Supervisor Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Arabinoxylan Metabolism in Barley Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Mr Robert Lee
  • Position: Professor
  • Phone: 83130755
  • Email:
  • Fax: 83137102
  • Campus: Waite
  • Building: Plant Research Centre, floor 1
  • Org Unit: School of Agriculture, Food and Wine - WT

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