Former employee destroys 4,000 protein crystals under study at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The FBI has arrested a former employee of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, in Menlo Park, Calif., for allegedly destroying more than 4,000 protein crystal samples in an act of vandalism on July 18. A criminal complaint was filed on Monday, July 27, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, in San Francisco.

The employee, Silvya Oommachen, was arrested on Tuesday, July 28, for allegedly destroying government property. She was released on $50,000 bail, says Jack Gillund, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco. Oommachen's next court date is scheduled for Aug. 17.

Oommachen told investigators that she removed the protein samples from storage in liquid nitrogen and left them out to thaw, says Matthew Quick, a special agent with the FBI, in an affidavit accompanying the complaint.

The samples belonged to the Joint Center for Structural Genomics (JCSG). JCSG is one of four high-throughput centers for determining protein structures that are funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences as part of the Protein Structure Initiative. JCSG uses the X-ray beam lines at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource to analyze protein structures.

The destruction of the samples is "disappointing and astonishing," says Ian A. Wilson, a professor of molecular biology at Scripps Research Institute and the head of JCSG.

Most of the destroyed samples were archived crystals on which scientists had already collected data, Wilson says, although researchers might have returned to some of them for further analysis. About 120 samples, however, were new and waiting for time in an X-ray beam. It will take weeks to months to re-create these 120 samples, according to Wilson. He estimates the loss to be a minimum of $500,000.

Since it was founded in 2000, JCSG has screened about 25,000 proteins and solved nearly 900 structures, Wilson says. The center was on track to solve about 250 structures in 2009, he says.

According to the affidavit, Oommachen told Quick that she had gone through "extreme personal and professional hardships, and had a very bad relationship with her supervisor," a SLAC employee who was paid through JCSG funds. Oommachen stopped showing up for work after June 17 and was fired by SLAC in July, the affidavit says.

Oommachen got through two security gates at SLAC to get access to the samples. SLAC is reviewing its security program, says Robert D. Brown, SLAC's director of communications.

Source: Chemical & Engineering News