18 May 2022

Thesis defense Sanne Boersma: “Dynamics and Heterogeneity of mRNA Translation and RNA Virus Infections”

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Sanne Boersma, from the group of Marvin Tanenbaum, successfully defended her thesis “Dynamics and Heterogeneity of mRNA Translation and RNA Virus Infections” on 18 May 2022. During her PhD, Boersma developed several advanced imaging techniques to track-and-trace single molecules in live cells. She used them to study mRNA translation, an important part of protein production. Furthermore, she applied the techniques to monitor RNA viruses and obtained important insights into viral infections. The work in her thesis could eventually contribute to the development of antiviral therapies.

From mRNA to proteins

The first part of Sanne Boersma’s thesis focuses on mRNA translation, which is an important step in the production of proteins.
Proteins are essential for cells. The types of proteins that are present within a cell determine, amongst other things, the shape, activity and function of the cell. Protein production takes place via two steps: transcription and translation. During transcription, a section of the genetic material in the cell, the DNA, is read and copied by the cell. These copies, which are small RNA molecules, serve as messengers and are therefore called messenger RNA or mRNA. During translation, the mRNA molecules function as recipes for the production of proteins by so-called ribosomes, the protein-producing factories in cells.


During her PhD, Boersma focused on the second step of protein production: the translation of mRNA into proteins. To gain more insight into this process, she and her colleagues developed new techniques to carefully visualize what exactly happens in the cell during translation. Using these techniques, they showed that the translation of mRNA is more complex than expected. Furthermore, they provide insight into the way ribosomes translate mRNA and which mechanisms a cell can use to regulate the process. With these techniques, researchers are able to analyze the process and quality of mRNA translation in great detail.

Virus livestreams

The second part of Boersma’s thesis describes the development of new methods that function as virus livestreams. These methods can be used to visualize a viral infection in live cells from the very first moment. The techniques can help identifying the weaknesses of a virus and finding out how and when the cell’s antiviral defense mechanisms may block an infection. “In the end, these techniques could contribute to the development of antiviral therapies,” Boersma explains.


When looking back on her PhD trajectory, Boersma says it was a great adventure. “I learned so many things and had great discussions and chats with lots of different people at the Hubrecht, both during scheduled meetings as well as next to the coffee machines or during ‘borrels’.” She considers the publications of her papers a real highlight, as well as the media coverage that followed. “I felt honored that the Dutch news (NOS journaal) came by for some recordings and it was even more surprising when some of that footage was used in the ‘Jeugdjournaal’, the news program for children,” she says.


Boersma advises new PhD students to enjoy the ride. “A PhD has many ups and downs. You need to go through a down to get to an up. And don’t be afraid to ask for help; within the institute and on campus there are many people with different expertise and their point of view may help you to move forward.” Now that her PhD trajectory is finished, she looks forward to celebrate obtaining her doctorate with her friends and family.

Portrait picture Sanne Boersma



Since completing her PhD, Sanne Boersma has started her postdoc in the lab of prof. Xiaowei Zhuang at Harvard University in Boston, USA.