Selena Koene, a former MSc thesis student at PCC, is one of the latest UFW thesis award nominees. She did her master thesis under the supervision of Siddharth Deshpande and Maria Forlenza (from Aquaculture and Fisheries, AFI).
Selena combined her biology roots and nascent interest in physical chemistry by doing a master thesis at PCC. Selena kick-started a brand-new project based on the exciting idea of using RNA-based coacervates (phase-separated particles) as vaccine delivery agents. The main novelty of the project being that RNA would be used both as a coacervation as well as an immunization agent. Focusing on the Spring Viraemia of Carp Virus (SVCV), a major economic threat for the aquaculture industry, Selena designed and performed the experiments showing great independence, which involved both molecular biology and fluorescence microscopy techniques. She obtained promising results, where she showed the formation of coacervates made up of SVCV RNA. She further showed the functionality by carrying out in vitro protein expression (using GFP RNA to visualize the fluorescence) using these particles as the template. Most importantly, she showed a steep learning curve in those six months, learning both about vaccination and the phase separation behavior of RNA, two distinct topics. The societal importance of this project is very clear given the recent pandemic, highlighting the need for rapidly adjustable RNA vaccines. Understanding the coacervation of viral RNA with partner proteins is also of fundamental interest to understand viral assembly. The underlying phenomenon of liquid-liquid phase separation is of great interest in biological soft matter and has received tremendous attention in recent years. During the project, Selena showed independence, scientific maturity, and interdisciplinary insight. We wish her all the best with her future adventures!