A former SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory researcher who allegedly destroyed $500,000 worth of protein crystals earlier this month was arrested and charged on Monday for willfully ruining government property.
The 4,000 to 5,000 now-useless protein crystals represented a "whole variety of different samples" involved in the Protein Structure Initiative, a federally-funded project to expedite the discovery of atomic-level protein structures, says Ian Wilson, director of the Joint Center for Structural Genomics (JCSG), which oversees the initiative. Some crystals were aimed at matching three-dimensional protein structures with their corresponding DNA sequences; others were part of targeted research projects including the Human Microbiome Project and efforts to map every protein made by the bacterium Thermotoga maritima.
Wilson estimates that his research team now faces a "two- to three-month setback" to remake the protein crystals that had not yet been analyzed. "It's basically going to take time, effort, and obviously money to redo those," he says. But many of the lost samples cannot easily be replaced, notes Keith Hodgson, associate laboratory director for photon science at SLAC and the head of the JCSG's structure determination unit. "Lost were materials that had been archived as well as the current samples in production," he says in an email. The half-million-dollar price tag was based on the time it will take to replace both the crystals in active use as well as the loss of the legacy crystals that were being saved in the event of future need.
Silvya Oommachen, a former JCSG research associate, entered the SLAC facility on 18 July and removed the crystals from the freezer, according to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Matthew Quick. Two days later, researchers discovered the thawed samples on the lab bench in three cryogenic containers, each with handwritten post-it notes signed by her alter-ego "X black". Oommachen, who didn't show up for work after 17 June, said she was overloaded by her supervisors and felt that the vandalism would reverse some of the "bad karma" associated with her time at the lab, the affidavit says.