Biosecurity? Australian federal lab sues contractor after fridge power left off, rare samples destroyed

A simple flick of the switch has allegedly cost the CSIRO millions of dollars and destroyed years of painstaking research

airplane.plug.johnnyIn an extraordinary civil case, the government’s national science agency is suing an occupational safety company for accidentally leaving the power off to a fridge containing extremely rare samples collected for plant and crop research.

Scientists at the CSIRO’s Black Mountain complex first noticed something was wrong in February 2006. 

A distinct smell was coming from a fridge in the Herbarium Microbiology Laboratory.

The fridge was used to store a rare collection of rhizobia, soil bacteria that live on the roots of legumes, helping to fix nitrogen in a process called “biological nitrogen fixation”.

The CSIRO says the collection, being used for advanced crop research, took years to collect and was worth “many millions” of dollars.

Some of the strains were obtained from the most remote, arid areas of Australia.

Upon investigation of the smell, a scientist quickly found the fridge to be turned off at the power point.

The CSIRO has launched action in the ACT Supreme Court against four defendants, Testel Australia Pty Ltd, Thermal Air Services Pty Ltd, and two associated individuals.

It alleged that the power was turned off to enable equipment to be plugged into a testing device, before being plugged back in at the wall. 

The power switch, however, was allegedly never turned back on.