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December 21, 2009
Faking X-Ray Structures. . .For Fun? Or Profit? Or What?
Well, this isn't good: an ex-researcher at the University of Alabama-Birmingham has been accused of faking several X-ray structures of useful proteins - dengue virus protease, taq polymerase, complement proteins from immunology, etc. There have been questions surrounding H. M. Krishna Murthy's work for at least a couple of years now (here's the reply to that one). The university, after an investigation, has decided that 11 of the published structures seem to have been falsified in some way and has asked that the papers be retracted and the structures removed from the Protein Data Bank.
The first controversy with these structures was, I think, the one deposited in the PDB as 2hr0. Here's a good roundup of what's wrong with it, for those of you into X-ray crystallography. And as that post makes clear, there were also signs that some other structures from this source had been suspiciously cleaned up a bit.
So how do you go about faking an X-ray, anyway? Here's some detail - basically, you could take something that's structurally related (from a protein standpoint) but crystallographically distinct, and use that as a starting point. As that post says, add some water and some noise, and "bingo". The official statement from UAB's investigation gives you the likely recipes for all eleven faked-up structures.
As for Dr. Murthy, he left UAB earlier this year, according to this article, and the university says that they have no current contact information for him. If these accusations are true, he's spent nearly ten years generating spurious analytical data. What, then, do you do with that skill set?
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