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Freak Lab Accident
"Bitten by radioactive beebles in a freak algebra accident, young Ricky Robertson discovered he'd gained the ability to harness the awesome power of fractions!"

An opportune, unplanned and unrepeatable (hence "Accident") event that gives a character their superpowers. Similar to No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup, only for people instead of machines and technologies. Opinions on this are extremely subjective, and this origin isn't used as much nowadays.

Common subtypes include:

Given the relatively tiny probability of being struck by lightning, this is also ties in with that.

More tolerated in superheroes created decades ago. Remakes tend to either avoid these random-chance origins or eventually tie them into a grander mythos (or at least a Story Arc of some kind).

It is still used frequently, despite having very nearly become cliche, making it a Undead Horse Trope. This is probably due to the fact that superheros don't exist in real life, and it is simply difficult to find other ways to make superheroes.

Can also be used to create a Monster of the Week, with the same caveats. This can be used to create a Science Is Bad plot if wanted when things have Gone Horribly Wrong. See also Disposable Superhero Maker, Miraculous Malfunction. Contrast Mass Super-Empowering Event.

Examples

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     Anime  

  • It is during one of her father's lab-experiments that Kurau in Kurau Phantom Memory gets merged with an energy being called "Rynax".
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion might count, what with the contact experiments infusing the test pilot's soul into the Eva's core. This happened twice with different circumstances: first, Yui was completely swallowed by Unit 01 and gained limited control in the form of going berserk; second, Kyoko's transition was incomplete and a clinically insane body was left behind that eventually killed herself, making Unit 02 the most stable one. Subverted in that Yui '''knew''' what's going to happen but did it anyway; unfortunately, it just made things even worse as she hadn't bothered to tell anyone and when her peers tried to extract her, she resisted and made it look like the operation failed (when the same happened to her son, everyone believed the same because Yui was holding them back until Shinji left on his own). Considering the fans' habit of deifying Yui-sama, it's a definite subversion.

     Comic Books  

  • The classic Super Hero Origin of The Flash involved lightning and a shelf full of chemicals in a police lab.
    • But, as mentioned above, this was eventually tied into the "Speed Force".
    • The origin of the Golden Age Flash involved Jay Garrick being exposed to hard water vapors. Apparently, there was a rumor at the time the comic was written that the chemicals typically found in hard water could increase the metabolic speed of animals who ingested or inhaled them.
      • This too was retconned to being part of the Speed Force, though during the period of time when the Speed Force disappeared, he still retained a weakned version of his powers thanks to his metagene.
    • In Flashpoint, Barry recreates the accident in an attempt to regain his powers. It didn't work and Barry instead suffered the Real Life consequences of being struck by a bolt of lightning while being doused with dangerous chemicals. He has to fry himself two more times before it works.
      • Before that, Wally West (the third Flash) tried recreating the accident after losing his powers. It almost worked right... he got the Super Speed, but not the necessary reflexes to maneuver, blasting a trail of destruction across the country in the split-second before he could stop running.
    • That origin was so good, DC recycled it exactly for Kid Flash.
    • Slightly changed in the 2014 TV series to a lightning that is the result of a particle accelerator malfunction at S.T.A.R. Labs, which results in the release of exotic energies into the city.
  • Spider-Man was given powers by a radioactive spider bite, the spider itself being a result of the lab accident. In the movie, this was retooled into a genetically-engineered spider's bite to reflect the discrediting of I Love Nuclear Power. The comic, on the other hand, retooled this by saying that the spider which bit him transferred some form of totemistic power on him, which in turn explained his many animal-themed enemies.
    • Marvel Comics in general (due to copious amounts of "Stan Lee Science") and Spider-Man in particular loves this trope. Many of Spidey's big foes (Doc Ock, Green Goblin, Lizard, Molten Man, etc) were created by some sort of lab accident or experiment gone wrong.
      • Retooled again and made more plausible in the modern re-imagining, Ultimate Spider-Man. It was a genetically altered spider instead of a radioactive one.
  • The initial origin-story for Swamp Thing followed this trope. Subverted when Alan Moore got ahold of the character and revised him from a formula-altered scientist to a plant elemental who thought he was a formula-altered scientist.
  • Man-Thing was also the result of a botched experiment, also retconned by the series' most notable author, Steve Gerber.
  • This works for villains as well. In The Silver Age of Comic Books, it was shown that Lex Luthor turned villainous after Superboy's "interference" in a Freak Lab Accident resulted in his life being saved, his experiments being destroyed, and his hair loss. Furthermore, when Luthor tried to retaliate with grandiose tech projects to show up Superboy, they went wrong disastrously enough to force the superhero to intervene, embarrassing Luthor enough to hate him even more.
  • This somewhat applies to The Joker of Batman fame, who gained not superpowers but his clownish appearance and Slasher Smile from falling into a vat of chemicals. Even the "no-superpowers-gained" thing is debatable, as some speculate that the Joker's insanity is actually a form of Fourth Wall breaking "super-sanity" gained at the same time.
    • In a 1989 Batman storyline, a mad Joker-wannabe hurls himself into a chemical vat in an attempt to replicate the transformation. However, as Batman unsuccessfully warns him, the industrial acids therein are much stronger than the ones that disfigured the Joker years ago, and the wannabe simply disintegrates.
    • Mr. Freeze is a more conventional playing of his trope. In the current past of the character, the attempts of his heartless bosses to get rid of him and his work to save his cryogenically frozen wife caused his equipment to go haywire, drastically altering him.
  • The post-Zero Hour Legion of Super-Heroes hangs a lampshade on the trope when Spark, in an effort to regain her super-power, attempts to recreate the circumstances of her freak origin — and gets herself killed as a result. (However, the rest of the Legion manages to revive her, and afterwards she does indeed have her powers back.)
    • Pre-Zero-Hour, there was Comet Queen (who is also known for speaking Totally Radical In Space). She had heard that Star Boy got his powers by flying through a comet, so she intentionally flew through one despite everyone telling her how stupid it was, especially since Star Boy did it in a spaceship. It worked anyway.
  • Although it actually took place on a testing range, the original origin of the Incredible Hulk is for all practical purposes a Freak Lab Accident. Later versions — most notably the TV series and the two motion-picture adaptations — make it a more literal lab accident.
    • A number of the classic Hulk's foes had Freak Lab Accident origins involving nuclear power and nuclear radiation (originally, anyway). One of them was a janitor exposed to nuclear waste.
  • In Watchmen, the apparatus that created Dr. Manhattan by "removing his intrinsic field", i.e. disintegrating his body, is for some unspecified reason impossible to use to repeat the process. It's not so much the effect of the device that gave Dr. Manhattan his powers, but the force of his will and mind maintaining their integrity afterwards and subsequently learning how to reassemble himself. That's an individual, possibly unique, factor that renders the result possibly irreproducible. And who wants to try to create a new Manhattan. One alone messes up the geopolitical situation seriously. What if the new guy would be even less stable and more detached from the human condition? The risks are way too great, even for the USSR to try to replicate. They did try at first, but stopped when they realized that forcefully disintegrating people in the hopes of turning them into gods might backfire.
    Ozymandias: You get to be a superhero by believing in the hero within you and summoning him or her forth by an act of will. Believing in yourself and your own potential is the first step to realizing that potential. Alternately, you could do as Jon did: fall into a nuclear reactor and hope for the best.
  • One of the versions of Donald Duck's superhero identity Paperinik (though not the one in Paperinik New Adventures) faces a parody of Spider-Man villain Sandman called Sandham (as he's a pig, natch). Sandham was a janitor in an oatmeal porridge factory who gained his powers when he was accidentally exposed to a procedure to "remove those nasty lumps from oatmeal porridge". Donald ends up having to dissolve him with it, and finally tosses his head, the only thing left of him, into a vat of porridge.
  • Inverted with Superboy (Kon-El). He was being grown and programmed in a lab to be a replacement for Superman, but a freak lab accident interrupted his maturity leaving him as Superboy.
  • Parodied in the Bongo Comics crossover, "When Bongos Collide!", when a nuclear plant meltdown (caused by Itchy and Scratchy) grants superpowers to nearly everyone in Springfield (and somehow automatically gives most of them costumes), whereupon everyone starts pummeling each other.
  • Spider-Girl's foe Mr. Abnormal is both an expy of Plastic Man and a parody of this. His origin is that "he had an improbable accident with a chemical at a toy factory that had a unique effect with his body chemistry", as quoted from Speedball.

     Fan Fic  

  • A popular Harry Potter fanfic cliché is for a transformation plot to be launched by a potions accident in Snape's class. Usually, they make you younger or change your gender.
  • Not a lab accident as such, but an unpredicted side effect of a new and highly experimental procedure. In the Discworld fiction There's nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, is there?, the Igors of Ankh-Morpork replace the shattered eyes of a wounded student Assassin. (One of those regrettable little accidents that happen at the Assassins' School). The donor, of corneal cells that Igor carefully nurtures into bio-artificed new eyeballs, is Quirmian Assassin Emmanuelle les Deux-Epées. Over the following few months, the pupil becomes very like Emmanuelle. In all ways.
  • In Movie Magic, Twilight Sparkle makes the mistake of looking at a rogue rainbow-powered rocket through a magitek camera when the rocket explodes, searing her right eye with magical energy and giving it super-powers.

     Film  

  • Darkman was hideously scarred and became unable to feel pain in such an accident (caused by The Mafia, no less). However, his ability to disguise himself came afterward, through more proper applications of the lab in question.
  • Origin of all villains in the Spider-Man Trilogy, save Venom.
  • Less heroically, The Fly.
  • Quite a few B-Movie monsters, most notably Tarantula. And that's not counting all the ones created by The Bomb.
  • Howard the Duck pulled this one twice: the first Freak Lab Accident dragged Howard to Earth; the second pulled down the alien demon that possessed Dr. Jenning.
  • Happens in Watchmen, for details see under Comic Books.

     Literature  

  • Played in Animorphs. This was how the Ellimist became a godlike being. Having his consciousness spread across multiple advanced bodies, some remaining in space and some in Z-space while the rest was sucked into a black hole, allowed his consciousness to integrate with the fabric of the universe. However, he notes that while the odds of this happening once were astronomical, the fact that it happened meant that Crayak could replicate it.
  • Parodied in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. At the beginning of Life, the Universe and Everything, we are introduced briefly to Wowbagger the Infinitely-Prolonged, an alien who was granted immortality in a freak office accident with "an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch, and a pair of rubber bands". All attempts to recreate it "have left people looking very silly, dead, or both". Wowbagger deals with the growing tedium of immortality by seeking to insult everyone in the Universe — individually, personally, and in alphabetical order.
  • A variation appears in the Isaac Asimov short story "Lenny". A small child (lost on a guided tour) plays around on an unlocked keyboard in a robot factory. This results in a robot which has no superpowers — indeed, it has roughly the intelligence of a human infant — but is a scientific gold-mine, functioning without the Three Laws and having the ability to learn rather than simply be programmed.
    • Lenny still has the Three Laws, it just doesn't have the knowledge to apply them properly. It acts on a Third Law imperative to protect itself due to a blow aimed at it (Not understanding that the blow aimed at it couldn't actually hurt it), and injures a human by accident in the process (Not understanding how relatively fragile a human is).
  • Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible: CoreFire and Dr. Impossible got their respective superpowers in separate lab accidents, though both accidents involved Dr. Impossible's research.
    • So did Erica Lowenstein, the Lois Lane to CoreFire's Superman and Dr. Impossible's Lex Luthor, who followed a lead on some villains and ended up falling into a vat of chemicals and becoming virtually indestructible and transparent.
  • In Dream Park (by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes), a small girl who'd accidentally wandered into the theme park's R&D division managed to combine an anatomical model with pieces of model roller coaster, and the result so intrigued the staff that it spawned a "Mr. Digestion" themed attraction. The kid got a spanking and a college scholarship.
  • Kilowatt of the Seekers of Truth got her start this way. Her end would have closely followed her start if not for the intervention of the Wizard.
  • Carl Castanaveras in Emerald Eyes by Daniel Keys Moran, was the first in a series of telepaths created by Project Superman by gene manipulation. Played straight because at the time he was created, the scientists admitted that the technology to create him didn't work yet, and only the inexplicable (at least to the scientists working on him) radiation at the moment of his conception, made the fetus viable. Averted because the source of the radiation was the time traveller Named Storyteller deliberately showing up at that moment to perform the gene manipulation that the scientists were incapable of performing, in order to make sure that Carl (his distant ancestor) existed at all.
  • Not a superhero, but Cheery Littlebottom's career change from alchemist to forensics officer with the Discworld Ankh-Morpork City Watch took place after she left her previous workplace through the roof. Explosions at the Alchemists' Guild are hardly freakish; blowing up the entire Guild council, however, causes comment.
  • In Kathy Reichs' Virals series, a spinoff to the Temperance Brennan novels, Temperance's niece Tory is a teenage girl who, along with her friends, accidentally contracts a genetically engineered parvovirus (a virus that normally only affects dogs) and is turned into a sort of hairless werewolf.

     Live Action TV  

  • Peter Brady, (no, not THAT one)The Invisible Man from the 1958 TV series, fits this trope and subverts it: While he became invisible in a lab accident, he is perfectly able to reproduce it and make anyone invisible. At one point, he was even able to detect when a rabbit had been invisible for a short period of time.
  • The Big Bang Theory
    • Referenced jokingly to warn one character away from escalating vengeance against a misanthropic genius:
      Leonard: Penny, you don't want to get into it with Sheldon. The guy is one lab accident away from becoming a supervillain.
    • In another episode, a rat injected with radioactive isotopes bit a lab tech. Raj became incredibly disappointed to find that the lab tech didn't get superpowers.
  • Subverted, along with No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup in the 1970s version of The Incredible Hulk. In principle, anyone could recreate the experiment that changed Dr. Banner, it's just that nobody has any reason to. One of the two-part episodes revolves entirely around a much earlier experiment in another part of the country that had turned another man into a Hulk, and the discovery of a cure, which Dr. Banner cannot use because the former Hulk has re-exposed himself, become a murderous Hulk, and there's not enough of the needed compounds for two treatments.

     Music  

     Tabletop Games  

  • Zig-zagged in Mortasheen. If this ends up happening when you create a monster, most likely you'll end up with a mindless, pointless Garbage monster. But, in rare occurrences, it might either start out with insanely strong Psychic Powers or end up as one of the intensely powerful Garbage Beasts.

     Video Games  

     Web Comics  

  • Parodied by Man-Man who was bitten by a radioactive man, and so gains the powers of ... a man. Apart from a mutant head on top of his own, these "powers" merely make him invisible to women.
  • In Second League a rat gains superpowers from being bitten by a mutant superhero.
  • Parodied in Terror Island, where Ned Sorcerer, DDS got his superpower (which is causing everyone around him to know he's a dentist) from a freak epistemological lab accident.
  • In The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!, Molly the Peanut Butter Monster is described as a fuzzy pink lab accident.
  • Parodied in Antihero for Hire, where one character got super-powers in a freak skateboard accident.
  • It's implied that some sort of lab accident caused Othar, of Girl Genius, to come to his "Great Truth" that all Sparks have to die (or to become suicidally insane, as anyone else who knows about this "Truth" would consider it). The exact details are left as a Noodle Incident for the readers, but it may have involved the Great Wall of Oslo. (It's also all but stated by Word of God in the first adventure on Othar's Twitter that Othar was always just one freak accident away from becoming a suicidal maniac anyways — every single version of himself had realized this "truth" through various accidents. One involved waffles. It's unknown right now, however, how canon the Twitter is.) The man is also surprisingly resilient, even for a Spark; this may be a side-effect of the accident.
    • The world of Girl Genius is populated by Mad Scientists. If your lab work doesn't involve freak accidents of some kind (most likely deadly instead of empowering, but still), you're probably doing it wrong.
  • Heather Brown in Spinnerette gains spider-powers in a freak genetic engineering accident in a more or less Affectionate Parody of Spider-Man.
    • The reader is even led to believe that she'd obtained her powers from a spider-bite, just like Spider-Man. However, she only developed her extra limbs after falling into a vat of chemicals.
  • Ruby's World's heroine Ruby gains her enhanced size, strength, and power from a freak lab accident that was actually engineered post-mortem by her late mother, as a means to give her the capabilities to fight the Big Bad
  • In El Goonish Shive, this is what the Goo originally was before a Cerebus Retcon turned it into an attempt by Lord Tedd to kill this universe's Tedd.
  • Parodied in a Fourth Wall Mail Slot on VG Cats. Dr. Hobo is asked how he became a hobo, and recounts his Origin Story:
    Dr. Hobo: A bright young docshtor wash working in hish lab... when shuddenly! I did crack!
  • A lab technician in Biter Comics tries to recreate the accident that gave his coworker superpowers, with less that satisfactory results.

     Web Original  

  • This is a common origin for both heroes and villains in the Global Guardians PBEM Universe. Anole was bitten by a venomous snake that had been subjected to genetic experimentation, turning him into a reptile-man. Embrace was accidentally exposed to a mutagenic gas in a lab explosion. Koorogi was almost electrocuted when a gene sequencer shorted out while he was working with it. Polaris got caught in an overpoweringly powerful magnetic field when his lab equipment activated accidentally during an experiment. Aurora gained her powers when the experimental fusion reactor she was working on exploded. There are many more.
  • Most of the supers in the Whateley Universe are mutants, but Sam Everheart got his powers this way. It wouldn't have been a Freak Lab Accident if bad guys weren't trying to steal the nanotechnology that Sam was guarding. The resulting explosion ended up with Sam getting a body reconstructed by the nanites.
  • Lightning Dust's Klaus Melfton becomes the eponymous character via a strange invention of his father. After getting his powers stolen, he successfully repeats the accident to regain them.

     Western Animation  

  • Parodied in The Fairly OddParents with the origin of The Crimson Chin (voiced by Jay Leno). Before he was a crime fighter, the Chin was a talk show host, much like the guy who voiced him. He got bit on the chin by a radioactive celebrity, and that is how he became The Crimson Chin!
  • The Spectacular Spider-Man is stuffed with these. There's Peter Parker's genetically-modified spider-bite, but supervillains have them too:
  • Danny Phantom
  • Darkwing Duck tries to give himself super powers in one episode by deliberately standing in front of a Transformation Ray, claiming that it works in the movies all the time. His sidekick Launchpad doubts the plan, specifically pointing out that you can only gain superpowers from a lab accident, and not on purpose. Darkwing brushes off the advice, fires the ray, and is reduced to cartoon ashes.
    • Incidentally, many members of Darkwing's Rogues Gallery had their origins in a Freak Lab Accident; Megavolt, Bushroot, and the Liquidator are the most notable instances.
  • Dexter's Laboratory
    • Dexter spends an episode trying to gain superpowers through experimentation, and runs into the same it-doesn't-work-if-you-do-it-on-purpose problem. In the end, he gives up in frustration. Then Dee Dee waltzes into the lab, spills chemicals on herself, and gains super powers.
    • Subverted by Monkey; Dexter deliberately experimented on him, which gave Monkey his superpowers. The subversion comes from Dexter never figuring out that he succeeded.
  • The whole premise of The Powerpuff Girls revolves around a freak accident that occurred while the girls were being created: Professor Utonium's pet chimp Jojo accidentally shoved the Professor, causing the spill that created the Powerpuff Girls (the blast from the spill also gave Jojo super-intelligence, and his jealousy of the girls eventually drove him to become their arch-enemy Mojo Jojo). Why the Professor had that Chemical X located where he could break it and cause it to spill inside the pot is anyone's guess.
    • Hilariously lampshaded when, in an attempt to create a fourth Powerpuff Girl, the sisters recreate the circumstances of their origin by elaborately pretending that they're adding the Chemical X to the pot by sheer accident. Takes a tragic turn since the new Powerpuff Girl has problems, physical and mental, because of the substitutes the girls used for "sugar, spice, and everything nice" in the concoction.
  • Meltdown in Transformers Animated gets his powers by angrily knocking over the beakers of chemicals he was working on, after his funding gets cut.
  • Lampshaded in an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force when Shake tries to gain superpowers using barrels of toxic waste. First he tries to get some worms to eat the waste before biting him. This doesn't work, so he dumps a spoonful of the waste over his head, shouting, "Oh, no! A horrible accident!". This doesn't work either.
  • In Spider-Man: The Animated Series, Tombstone had the very Jokeresque origin of falling into a vat of chemicals during a bungled factory robbery. Spider-Man even lampshades it later.
    Spider-Man: You better stay still, another swim in that chemical soup and your hair might turn green!
  • Parodied on Family Guy. After the entire Griffin family gain superpowers and start causing trouble, Mayor Adam West tries to give himself superpowers by rolling around in toxic waste. The result? He gives himself lymphoma. His doctor berates him for the stupidity of such an action.
    • He just made the same mistake as Darkwing Duck. It has to be an accident. Trying to give yourself superpowers leads to you becoming a super-villain, at best.
    • He does at least stop the Griffins' rampage, since they feel guilty about his cancer.
  • The origin of Dr. Two Brains in WordGirl. Obviously, you don't get a rat brain stuck to your head playing golf.
  • The Simpsons episode "Three Men and a Comic Book" affectionately parodies the Incredible Hulk with Radioactive Man's origin: he gains his powers when trapped at the site of a nuclear detonation.
    Martin: I would've thought that being hit by an atomic bomb would've killed him.
    Bart: Now you know better.
    • In the Bongo comic series a pre-nuclear Golden Age version of Radioactive Man, 'Radio Man' is hinted at, who looks a bit like Golden Age Flash. God knows what his origin is.
  • Stinkor, one of Skeletor's henchmen in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002), gains the power of stench after ruining one of Triclops' experiments.
  • Brain of Pinky and the Brain once had a plan than hinged on this concept. He posed as a human and got a job at a big corporation, which he planned to sue for the money to fund his latest world-domination scheme by staging a freak accident involving a microwave and non-dairy creamer, reasoning that no one understands either well enough to argue against the claim.
  • On South Park, Jack Brolin was a former news reporter that gained the power of extraordinary hindsight through a freak accident involving a retroactive spider.
  • In The Mask animated series, a couple comic book fans try to replicate the accident that created their favorite superhero Insector the Bugman by breaking into a nuclear power plant and getting bitten by a bug after they become radioactive. Unfortunately they forget to bring a bug with them to the power plant and succumb to radiation poisoning. Then their ambulance crashes en route to the hospital. One guy crashes into a putty shop and is mutated into Clayface expy Putty Thing. The other guy crashes into an aquarium and becomes Fish Guy, who has the awesome power of being a fish. Who still can't swim.
  • In Batman: The Animated Series, Jack Ryder was a talk show host doing a set piece on the Joker's origin. The Joker barges in and decides to have some fun by dosing Ryder with Joker Venom and throwing him into a vat of chemicals similar to the one that transformed the Joker. This backfires on the Joker when the combination of the Joker Venom and the chemicals gives Ryder a Superpowered Crazy Awesome Side that calls himself The Creeper. The Creeper then proceeds to scare the crap out of the Joker. By the end of the episode, the Joker is begging Batman to save him from the lunatic.
  • The Venture Bros. lampshades this. When Phantom Limb is creating the Secret Society One of the people taking up the offer explains he got his powers from a freak lab accident, to which they immediately point out they understand as they themselves have had a freak lab accident that changed them into what they were.
  • Martha Speaks is a milder example. It's pointed out several times throughout the show that the alphabet soup gave only Martha the ability to speak, and that she ate it by accident. This is most likely put into place to dissuade kids from giving their pets alphabet soup in the hopes of having a talking pet. (Of course, the show is also aware that it's a cartoon...)
  • The Batman Beyond episode "Heroes" presents a dark Deconstruction of the concept. Three scientists are accidentally irradiated and become "The Terrific Trio" (with obvious parallels to the Fantastic Four). It turns out that their transformations are slowly killing them and driving them insane, and were caused by a colleague's scheme to Murder the Hypotenuse.

Hollywood ExorcismIndex of Gothic Horror TropesGhost Story
Flaming EmblemSuperhero TropesFuture Spandex
Frankenstein's MonsterMedical HorrorGenetic Engineering is the New Nuke
Free-Love FutureSpeculative Fiction TropesFrickin' Laser Beams
Bleep DammitImageSource/Comic BooksJapanese Ranguage
The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect YouHorror TropesGate of Truth

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