Integrated Human Practices

Our practical work, outreach and software have been characterized by a series of informed decisions but also valuable advice from experts. In the following texts we want to show you how we implemented their expertise in our project.

Practical Work

Our practical work focused on the design of our test system. Based on the advice we received, we adjusted our riboswitch design, reporter selection, and bacteria strains we used for testing. We also revised the concentrations we intended to detect and the patient samples we wanted to measure them in.

Altering our Riboswitch Design

The choice of which riboswitch to utilize as the foundation for our constructs was significantly impacted by the expertise of ZI Mannheim. We originally planned to work with the Li+-I riboswitch as it was shown to work well. But during this conversation, the significance of our riboswitch's ion specificity was emphasized. The Li+- construct was only a few mutations away from binding sodium and since sodium and potassium are present in the blood, the riboswitch should not bind these ions and thus produce a false signal. This is why we chose to work with the Li+-II- riboswitch.

Our idea was to keep our construct small and simple but we received the advice to only carefully adapt the natural riboswitch. We were told by Prof. Mörl that it has already been optimized via evolution. Still, we got a suggestion from Prof. Simmel to also screen alternative constructs. Keeping both pieces of advice in mind we decided to make only small changes in contrast to what we had considered but still developed 4 different riboswitch constructs. We also kept the natural flanking sequences of the riboswitch as advised by Prof. Mörl and Prof. Süß, who emphasized their importance for RNA structures. Indeed, after performing a large number of experiments, we found that the best results were produced by the unmodified riboswitch, especially the combinations with NanoLuc.

Before we could change the ribosome binding site in some of our constructs, we encountered a problem. In the paper from which our riboswitch originated, we could not find information about where the RBS was located within the sequence. We then contacted the authors of the paper and received the specific RBS. Thus, we were able to implement our modifications.

Refining our Choice of Reporters

Concerning our reporters our plan was to use GFP and lacZ. Prof. Mörl advised us to use fast-folding fluorescent reporters such as sfGFP. After some research we also started working with mScarlet-I3. We hadn’t considered luminescent reporters for our system as usually only fluorescent proteins are used in cell-free experiments. But Dr. Tobias May recommended trying out our system with a luciferase and Prof. Dr. Süß specifically recommended using nanoLuc.

Finding Alternative Bacteria Strains

We started our cell-based experiments with the E. coli strain BL21(DE3) but based on the advice we received at one of our project presentations we also decided to look for alternatives with a gene for the T7 RNA-Polymerase. As a result, we successfully performed experiments with the KRX strain.

Patient Samples: Saliva or Blood

Our original goal was to design a non-invasive test system with saliva as a sample. But in our meeting with ZI Mannheim we learned that although there is a correlation between lithium levels in blood and saliva[1][2][3] it is still too inaccurate for a diagnostic tool. Thus, we decided to focus on blood as a new sample. For regulatory and ethnic reasons, we could not work with blood. Moreover, we did not have an S2 laboratory available that would be required for such experiments.

Adjustment to the Lithium Concentrations we Tested

To test our riboswitches we worked with 50 mM LiCl as stated in the paper. From our initial research we knew that the concentration at which lithium becomes toxic is 1.5 mM. But since Prof. Schulze as well as Prof. Simmel advised us to also measure concentrations that are lower to detect lithium levels that are too low and to tailor our test system more to differences in between patients. A simple on/off test, like a test strip, is not recommended for our application. Thus we expanded the range we tested to 0.2 mM- 1.5 mM. This way certain symptoms could also be connected to the corresponding lithium levels.


The monitoring software should enable the standardized documentation of the measured lithium concentrations. Furthermore, factors influencing the lithium concentration in the patient sample, the test result, and factors indicating a change of episode in the patient are tracked.

While thinking about the application of our test system we thought about how the data can be documented and how it will get to the doctor. Our idea was to build a monitoring software where patients can document results and send them to their doctors in a standardized data format. But in our interviews with experts we also learned that certain factors can influence lithium levels and the result of our test system. We realized that we could implement this aspect in our software.

We used the knowledge we gathered from the interviews to create a prototype of this software. The software tracks the lithium levels and can be sent to the doctor in table format. Due to our interview with Prof. Dr. Thomas G. Schulze we know that external factors like temperature can influence lithium levels which is why we included them in our software. This would allow the doctors to better interpret the results of the measurement. From our talk with Dr. med. Buspavanich we learned that it is important for patients to recognize their triggers for manic and depressive episodes. In our software the patients would be able to track these common or personal triggers as well as their mental state and sleeping pattern. These are informations useful for the doctor to recognize patterns in connection to the lithium levels and for the patient.


An appropriate and sensitive communication of our project was important to us. Because of this, we adjusted our communication and education approaches based on expert feedback.

Improving Communication and Education

We contacted ‘Wissenschaft im Dialog’ to help us with our science communication after our initial discussions about genetic engineering at the botanical garden. At our first visits we encountered difficulties discussing with people whose opinions differed strongly from ours. Our first approach was to distribute handouts with further information but we also wanted to change the way of communicating. We also aimed to improve our communication strategy for social media and our upcoming school visits. Ms. Hengere from ‘Wissenschaft im Dialog’ gave us the following advice that we implemented in our ensuing science communication:

  • Use of interactive surveys

  • Use of visual aids and emotional elements

  • Focus on a specific target group

  • Qualitatively reaching a local audience

At our next visits to the botanical garden we did interactive opinion surveys where people could position themselves on a statement before and after talking to us. We were able to use this to get a clear view of the opinion of people and adjust our methods.

We have implemented the use of graphical overviews and pictograms, to help with the memorization of facts, before in our presentations and on social media. But we increased our use of visuals, started posting educational video content on social media and created a card game based on visual elements. This allowed us to convey complex scientific information in an understandable and entertaining way to evoke emotions.

Our original idea was to reach as many people as possible, but Ms. Hengere told us that it would be more productive, sustainable and of higher quality to focus on a more specific target group and tailor our approach to it. We decided to mainly address high school students. We implemented this by creating more entertaining content on Instagram and TikTok. We also had a look at the curriculum of the students to adjust our classes to it. Our card game was also a way of engaging with this target group.

To address the local audience we have had discussions at our local botanical garden, held presentations, and had an article published about us in a local newspaper and our university magazine.

Awareness about Bipolar

It was clear to us that we needed to address the condition itself and how to communicate knowledge about it. In doing so, we had to inform about the topic in a considerate and sensitive way, respecting language preferences. Therefore, we sought information from experienced, practicing physicians, such as Dr. Buspavanich or at the Bipolar UK conference. There we were informed that in the English the term "Bipolar" is preferred over "Bipolar Disorder" by affected people. In German such a preference does not exist according to Dr. Buspavanich. Therefore, we have decided to use the term "Bipolar" when we communicate in English and use "Bipolar Disorder" when we write or speak in German.

Human Practices

With our at-home test system, we want to give people who experience bipolar and are being treated with lithium compounds as a mood stabilizer the opportunity to live their lives in a more stress-free and self-determined way.

During our journey we consulted a range of experts, professionals, and organizations to better understand the practical implications and ethical dimensions of our project. These individuals and groups provided us with invaluable knowledge and perspectives, influencing our project in numerous ways.

Our discussions and consultations revealed critical information about the following aspects that shaped our project:

Dr. med. Buspavanich

We consulted Dr. med. Pichit Jürgen Buspavanich, a medical specialist in psychiatry and psychological therapy at Charité Berlin, who also leads a junior research group, for valuable insights into Bipolar and Lithium Medication. He is also involved in the consortium of ZI Mannheim who we consulted in the previously mentioned meeting.

Our reasons for seeking his expertise included his extensive knowledge of Bipolar and his experience in working with patients diagnosed with this condition.

Prof. Dr. Thomas G. Schulze

Prof. Thomas G. Schulze is a renowned specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy. He currently holds the Chair of Psychiatric Phenomics and Genomics at the Institute for Psychiatric Phenomics and Genomics (IPPG) at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. His research focuses on the complex interactions between genetic factors and environmental conditions in mental illnesses such as bipolar, schizophrenia and depression.

We asked Prof. Schulze for an appointment, so that he can inform us about bipolar and tell us about the medication. He is actively involved in national and international scientific networks, including the Bipolar Disorder Genome Study (BiGS), and his extensive experience and expertise make him an ideal contact for questions related to bipolar, its treatment and diagnosis.

Bipolar UK: World Bipolar Day

Since bipolar is one of the major subjects of our project, we wanted to learn more about it first hand. That is why we attended the Bipolar UK online conference “Bipolar diagnosis and beyond”.

This meeting was hosted on the occasion of world bipolar day on march 30th. Bipolar UK invited different affected people, families and experts to publicly share their experiences. The choice of topics was meant to create an overview of mental illness. They even illuminated symptoms and specific difficult situations that wouldn’t come to one’s mind as a first association about bipolar, like how it can affect relationships and parenting. Some of these more unknown symptoms were paranoia, impulsive spending, hypersexual behavior and disrupted sleep. The talks and discussions raised awareness for the illness and helped us, as a team, to understand the mental disease with all its challenges even better. With the new information we received, we were able to adapt it to our project to make it even more useful.

Through the conference we realized how difficult life can be with this condition and that our test-system could make a big difference in their lives, which motivated us even more to make our project work.

Prof. Dr. Friedrich Simmel

Our team had the opportunity to interview Prof. Simmel, a renowned expert in the field of riboswitches. We sought his expertise and valuable insights for our riboswitch project, as his research focuses on artificial molecular machines and nanostructures made of DNA molecules, and the design of artificial biochemical regulatory circuits.

Prof. Dr. Beatrix Süß

One of the experts we contacted is Prof. Süß from TU Darmstadt. Her field of work is synthetic RNA biology and she deals with regulatory RNAs in many different forms and shapes. In her research, she is working on aptamers and riboswitches, and of course this is particularly interesting for our project. She has kindly taken the time for an interview with us to answer some of our questions.

We asked Prof. Süß for advice based on her knowledge for regulatory RNAs and her experience with the handling of riboswitches.

Prof. Dr. Mario Mörl

Prof. Mario Mörl is a biochemist and molecular biologist at the University of Leipzig and an expert in riboswitches. In addition to nucleotidyl transferases, he works on the in vitro evolution of nucleic acids and the molecular pathogenesis of mitochondrial diseases.

After working out our topic, we needed to develop a deep understanding of riboswitches and find innovative approaches for our riboswitch project. Therefore, we contacted Prof. Mörl, a renowned expert in this field.

ZI Mannheim

We engaged with a consortium of medical professionals and researchers associated with the Zentralinstitut für Seelische Gesundheit (Central Institute of Mental Health) in Mannheim, Germany. This consortium is actively involved in the development of a Lithium detection system, emphasizing the importance of quick and efficient testing in addressing a significant problem.

Dr. Tobias May

Dr. Tobias May is a biochemist and works as Managing Director at InSCREENeX. He is involved in the development and commercialisation of novel cellular systems. He helped us as an expert of luciferases.

After a successful lecture on our project, which we gave to both students and external scientists, we came into contact with Dr. Tobias May. During an interview, he was able to explain a lot about luciferase enzymes and gave us important tips.

Wissenschaft im Dialog (Science Communication)

In order for us to optimize our activities in the field of education as best as possible, we conducted an interview with the Team from “Wissenschaft im Dialog”. Wissenschaft im Dialog" serves as the leading organization for promoting science communication in Germany. As a non-profit GmbH, it aims to enhance communication between science and society, develops innovative communication methods, and encourages scientists to engage with the public, including on controversial research subjects. In the interview we spoke with Gesa Hengerer. At “Wissenschaft im Dialog '', she is in charge of the "Hochschulwettbewerb" (university competition) within the framework of the Wissenschaftsjahre (Science Years). We received valuable suggestions and advice on how to carry out science communication effectively.

Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices

The Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) is a German federal authority responsible for the approval and oversight of pharmaceuticals and medical devices in Germany. We have reached out to the BfArM to gain insights and expertise on the steps and criteria to consider in the approval of a medical device.

Health Insurance

In order to make our self-test accessible to as many people as possible, it would be ideal if the costs for this could be covered by health insurance in the future. Therefore, we have contacted a German health insurance fund, the AOK, to ask whether our cell-free system could be realized as a statutory paid diagnostics tool.

If our product were to reach market maturity, it would first need to be ensured that it can be used in patient care. This would be regulated by a CE-mark in accordance with the EU Medical Devices Regulation.

Subsequently, the product would need to be integrated into the list of medical aids regulation. In our case, our test kit could be classified in product group 21, „Measuring devices for body states and functions“. For this, the „GKV-Spitzenverband“, an association of health insurance funds, may inquire with the „Gemeinsamen Bundesausschuss“, the Federal Joint Committee, whether it is a new diagnostic and treatment method. In the following a consultation would be necessary. After inclusion in the list of medical aids regulation, efforts could be made to have the product included in the benefits catalog of the statutory health insurance.