Permanganate Oxidation of DNA Nucleotides: An Introductory Redox Laboratory Framed as a Murder Mystery

Stephen M. Testa, John P. Selegue, April French, Brett Criswell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


For a variety of reasons, understanding oxidation-reduction (redox) reactions can be challenging for introductory chemistry students. To provide an experiential foundation for students to learn redox concepts, we developed a laboratory experiment that frames redox reactions as a simulated murder mystery. In this experiment, permanganate, which serves as the oxidizing agent, reacts with each of the four monomer units of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which serve as the reducing agents. The reactions are designed to produce dissimilar manganese oxidation states, and hence dissimilar solution colors. For practical reasons, the four monomer units of DNA are used as mimics of four polymeric DNAs from four murder suspects. The color obtained from the redox reaction using "DNA" from the murder weapon is compared to that from the four suspects to identify the perpetrator. The experiment can contribute to the students' emergent understanding of basic redox concepts, of the variable nature of transition metal oxidation states, and of the concept that the DNA monomers are distinct chemicals with distinct reactivities (i.e., reducing potentials in this experiment). Alternative strategies for framing the experiment, as well as some of its limitations, are discussed. The contributions of first-year undergraduate researchers to this experiment are also described.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1840-1847
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Chemical Education
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 9 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank Jeremy Maynard, Christopher Noe, Elizabeth Thomas, and Pauline McWhorter for input on this project. We would also like to acknowledge the first-year undergraduate research students: Eve Aldridge, Keith Allen, Cassandra Almasri, Ben Arrants, Alec Bradley, John Davis, Ebony Nava, Aaron Trejo, and peer mentors Joanna Ng and Joseph Caldwell. This work was partially supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes Sustaining Excellence Grant 52008116. In addition, this material is based on work partially supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 1239968. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 American Chemical Society and Division of Chemical Education, Inc.


  • Applications of Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • First-Year Undergraduate/General
  • Forensic Chemistry
  • Hands-On Learning/Manipulatives
  • Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary
  • Laboratory Instruction
  • Nucleic Acids/DNA/RNA
  • Oxidation/Reduction
  • Transition Elements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry (all)
  • Education


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