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DNA: The Revenge

The writer and medical doctor wrote a short story for about DNA

Moacyr Scliar

The whole world rejoiced with the discovery of the structure of DNA, correct? The whole world believed it to be a great scientific discovery, correct? Wrong.There is at least one person who cannot hear about DNA. Who shakes with hatred on the simple mention of this acronym. And who, curiously enough, is a man who, in the decisive instant of his life, had been linked, though in an indirect manner, to research that led to the discovery of DNA. This man lives in Brazil. I know him: he is the father of my neighbor Lúcia. Born in Beja, Portugal, he followed the pathway of many of his countrymen by emigrating, this at the beginning of the 50s.

He went to England and there got a job in a research laboratory of a university. His was a humble occupation. Together with others, he did the cleaning. He swept the floor, washed the test tubes and took out the garbage. His wage was nothing great but at least he had something to eat, to wear and somewhere to live. Besides, he was, in some form, linked to an enterprise that he didn?t understand very well, but he knew that it was something of importance.

The scientists in the laboratory were developing a hush-hush project, about which other rival laboratories could not even know that it was happening. And clearly the man had not asked anything with respect to it. However, he could not help but read certain notes that sometimes appeared in the waste paper basket. One of these notes made him particularly restless. Written by the laboratory director, a person who rarely showed up there (he was always on visits to ministerial offices), it had been directed to one of the scientists, indeed to the research coordinator. The note was written in English, but by that time, he could already manage to reasonably understand the language. It was with his heart beating strongly that he read: “Invest heavily in DNA. For sure it will give us a compensating return”.

It so happens that the name of our friend is Deocleciano Natercino Almeida, a name of difficult pronunciation, above all in English. It was to such a degree that, as is the custom in this type of situation, he had been given a nickname. In truth an acronym formed by the first letters of his name. He was known as DNA. “DNA, bring the bucket.” “DNA, clean this window.” “DNA, hand me the brush.” On that night DNA, or that is to say, Deocleciano Natercino Almeida, couldn?t sleep from pure excitement. He considered himself to be a model employee, but never could he have imagined that his importance was so great. The laboratory was going to invest in him! This meant that they had plans for his future ? perhaps they would want to give him a position of responsibility.

Ah, if only his past friends, humble country folk, could see that note! (A note that, he decided, he would send to be framed so as to always have it in his room.) From that moment onwards he was transformed. Now he seemed to be a dynamo. Nobody demonstrated such disposition for work; nobody dedicated himself so much to washing test tubes or to cleaning the laboratory. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave. At times he spontaneously came in at the weekends. The other employees were astonished and also irritated: they believed his behavior was a type of disloyal rivalry. But the scientists did not spare him compliments. One of them even declared that such dedication was an example to all.

And so it happened that whether it was the influence of DNA (Deocleciano Natercino Almeida) or for another reason, what is certain is that all of them went on to work with tremendous persistence. Also, there was nervousness. In spite of all of the silence it was clear that the research had entered the final leg ? and not only there, but also in other centers that had disputed the so secret and transcendent race. And then, in March of 1953, came the news that shook the scientific world: in Cambridge, Francis Crick and James Watson had discovered the structure of DNA. On that day Deocleciano Natercino Almeida discovered that he was not the DNA. At least he wasn?t the only DNA. There was another.

The other was in the headlines of the newspapers, in broadcasts on the radio and even in conversations in the bar. He had continued to be the humble and unknown employee of a laboratory. Evidently his colleagues didn?t miss the opportunity to mock him. If I were you I would sue these people for trademark copying, stated one attendant. Deocleciano Natercino Almeida didn?t find that story funny. On the contrary, he became profoundly disheartened. He tore up and burned the note that he had kept with such care.

And made a decision: he would no longer work in a laboratory. In fact, he would no longer stay in England. The discovery of DNA had been a personal affront and he would no longer remain in the country in which this had happened. It was in this manner that he emigrated to Brazil. Here he continued to work hard. He opened up a restaurant, prospered, married had sons and daughters ? Lúcia is the youngest. However, the acronym continued to haunt him.

Having read all of the news in this respect, he hired a biology professor to give him private lessons on the theme. Now Lúcia is pregnant. It?s a girl. According to what they tell me Deocleciano Natercino Almeida is very happy and is even proposing a name for his granddaughter, a name that Lúcia for obvious reasons did not accept. The name proposed is Genome. It has something to do with DNA. And is also a type of revenge of Deocleciano Natercino Almeida.

Moacyr Scliar is a writer, author among other publications of A Paixão Transformada: História da Medicina na Literatura [The Passion Transformed: History of Medicine in Literature] (Companhia das Letras). He is also a medical doctor, specialist in public health.