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SLAC Worker Accused of Melting Protein Crystals

A former employee at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, was arrested Monday for allegedly destroying at least 4000 protein crystal samples by removing them from cryogenic containers at the lab and leaving them out to thaw. Documents released by the FBI estimate it will cost $500,000 to reproduce and process the lost samples.

The FBI claims that Silvya Oommachen, 32, a former laboratory assistant, has admitted that she slipped into the lab on 18 July and emptied the containers, leaving behind three Post-it notes, the San Jose Mercury News reports:

She signed one as her alter ego "X Black” and in the others referred to a sexual act and the date and time the protein crystal samples were sabotaged, according to the affidavit.

According to the Mercury News, FBI Special Agent Matthew Quick wrote in an affidavit that Oommachen had a bad relationship with her supervisor and felt overworked, and that she was fired earlier this month for abandoning her job.

Researchers affiliated with the Joint Center for Structural Genomics (JCSG) were using x-rays produced by the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource to study the samples as part of their effort to match gene sequences with protein structures and develop streamlined methods for determining the three-dimensional structures of proteins. The samples aren't irreplaceable, but it will take considerable time, effort, and money to replace them, says Ian Wilson, principal investigator of JCSG. Wilson says JCSG scientists will meet in the near future to decide how to proceed, "You can't imagine that somebody would do something like this, and I don't know how you guard against it, quite honestly," he adds.

Note: This item has been corrected to indicate that the number of samples destroyed was at least 4000, not 3500, and that Oommachen was fired in July, not June.