Former lab assistant arrested for destroying over £300,000 of protein crystals

An apparent case of inside vandalism has caused approximately $500,000 (?302,000) worth of research samples to be destroyed at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, US. A former employee, 32-year-old Silvya Oommachen, was arrested and admitted deliberately causing the damage, according to documents released by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on 27 July.

The incident occurred at the Joint Center for Structural Genomics (JCSG) laboratory on the SLAC campus. Oommachen, who had been fired from the facility  earlier in the month after not reporting for work since 17 June, is accused of ruining 4,000 to 5,000 protein crystal samples by taking them out of cryogenic containers and leaving them to thaw on a lab table. Lewd post-it notes were left on the containers making it clear that the act was malicious. 

’By being removed from their cold storage and being exposed to the ambient temperature of the lab for an extended period of time, all of the crystal protein  samples were destroyed and are useless for any further research,’ the legal complaint explains. ’Nine years worth of legacy protein samples which were not currently being used in research, but were being maintained in the event of future need, were also destroyed.’

Reproducing and processing all of the lost protein crystals will require two or three weeks, according to Ashley Deacon, the JCSG’s administrator. She notes that the $500,000 damage figure does not factor in the potential impact of the crime on the lab’s production rate, which could prove to be a disadvantage in its upcoming grant renewal with the US National Institutes of Health.

According to the legal complaint, Oommachen told the authorities that she felt overworked and was asked to take on more responsibility than one laboratory assistant could handle. She also revealed her belief that the loss of the crystals would not cause the lab serious harm because 90 per cent of the material was old and no longer scientifically useful. 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe