Tribute to a plant cell biologist

26 March 2014

Associate Professor Jan Marc passed away last week after a long and brave battle with leukaemia.Jan has been a member of the School since 1992 and was a very popular teacher to countless undergraduate students.

Jan Marc (pictured here at a graduation in 2011) sadly passed away on 17 March 2014.
Jan Marc (pictured here at a graduation in 2011) sadly passed away on 17 March 2014.

Jan became a biologist whilst growing crops and working on the farm in a beautiful village in the Czech moutains - Slovicovitce. It was here that he developed a passion to learn how plants grow and how they respond to the environment.

After his compulsory military service Jan wanted to go to University but this was difficult because men were needed to work on the farms. At the last minute he was given approval by the Director of the Village to go to University in Prague where he studied agriculture. During his third year Jan went to Germany for practical experience, however he did not return. Russia had invaded the Czech Republic and so Jan became a refugee and joined a ship to Australia.

Jan decided to finish the degree he had almost completed in Prague. Unfortunately, UNSW Science gave him credit for only 3 units of study. Jan worked full time and studied Botany part-time. He gained first class honours and a PhD from UNSW, and went on to have a distinguished career with an international reputation in plant cell biology. He carried out research at the Australian National University and universities within the USA and Europe. But he has spent most of his career as an academic at the University of Sydney.

Jan has made a number of major advances in the understanding how plants grow and respond to their environment. For example during his PhD he described the precise pattern of cell divisions that underlie the development of the beautiful patterns seen in sunflowers.

His focus during his career moved to increasingly finer detail. In the last two decades he has been interested in the factors that regulate the precise positioning of fine filaments just inside the plant cell known as microtubules. He helped show that these filaments control the orientation of the cellulose in the plant cell wall which ultimately gives the plant cell its shape as it expands. It is the microtubules that ensure that the plant expands in the elongated shapes that we see in stems and roots rather than simply as a symmetrical blob. With a colleague in the US, Jan was the first to tag microtubules in plants with green fluorescent protein so that the microtubules can bee seen in a living cell. This technique is now used routinely around the world.

Along with his students, Jan has also identified a protein that links the microtubules to the outside environment. It is phospholipase D and Jan called it "the smart link" because it is able to detect signals in the environment and pass this information onto the microtubules inside the cell. In this work he has discovered some of the molecular details of how plant growth is controlled by the environment - the very question that Jan pondered as a young farmer in the Czech mountains!

Jan has taught thousands of undergraduate students. He was an inspiring teacher and supervisor. His undergraduate students were uniform in their praise for him. He enthusiastically demonstrated is lectures with a variety of props and often used his body to demonstrate a point. He was famous for doing a jig to demonstrate how chromosomes move during cell division.

Jan's scientific contributions will live on through the students he has trained and the papers he has written, which will continue to be cited into the future.