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The Mystery of the Seven Deaths

A Case Study in Cellular Respiration


Michaela A. Gazdik
Biology Department
Ferrum College


In this interrupted case study, students learn about the function of cellular respiration and the electron transport chain and what happens when that function is impaired. The case is loosely based on the real-life 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders where seven people died when Tylenol capsules were laced with cyanide. Students play the role of medical examiner as they analyze the autopsy results to determine the cause of the mysterious deaths of these seven victims. The case was originally used in a general biology course taken by both science majors and non-majors.

  • Explain the overall purpose of cellular respiration.
  • Describe the intermediate metabolites of cellular respiration.
  • Explain the function and importance of the electron transport chain.
  • Describe the role of oxygen in cellular respiration.
Keywords: Cellular respiration; hypoxia; blood oxygen; metabolic pathway; metabolite; pyruvate, acetyl coenzyme A; NADH; cytochrome c oxidase; electron transport chain; adenosine triphosphate; ATP; product tampering; cyanide poisoning; Tylenol
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Interrupted, Role-Play
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Molecular Biology   Cell Biology   Physiology  
Date Posted: 10/13/10
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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I just wanted to say what a great idea for teaching cellular respiration. Thank you for putting it on the Web.

Kara Marshall
Science Department
Westmoor High School
Daly City, California

My Bio I students really enjoyed working through this lab activity. We ended by watching a YouTube video about the Tylenol murders, which they were all really interested in. I think that this really helped them to understand respiration and the electron transport chain better. Thanks! :)

Kim Pause Tucker
College of Coastal Georgia
Brunswick, GA
This is one of the best case studies I've used so far. My AP Biology students were engaged throughout the entire activity and really enjoyed taking on the role of medical examiner. I was especially inspired listening to their small group discussions. This case study is definitely a keeper.

Adrian Correa
IDEA College Preparatory
San Benito, TX
I love this case study and my students really enjoy it. Thank you for making this available. One minor correction is that according to the total in the description there were eight victims instead of seven. One of my students caught that so I can't even take credit for it.

Peter Cavnar
University of West Florida
Pensacola, FL
What a wonderful activity.

Caroline Sorensen
Science Department
Greenbush Middle River High School
Greenbush, Minnesota
I adapted this case to be done as a Google Form - an online questionnaire (posted only to students in my class), revealed one page at a time. It was effective in getting the whole group involved, especially as many are hesitant to speak up in a group discussion, but had thoughts they were eager to type on their phones. They were full of questions by the end of the class, about the real-life events. Thanks for an engaging lesson!

Kim Gillard
Science Department
Lacombe Composite High School
Lacombe, Alberta

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