Meet Aruna Dhathathreyan, the leather scientist
India produces more than 12 per cent of the world’s leather. Naturally, there is a space for science to further the industry and that’s why Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) was established. According to their website, 60 per cent of India’s leather industry workers are CLRI alumni. Aruna Dhathathreyan is an Emeritus (recently retired) scientist at CLRI who uses her expertise in biophysics to look at the way proteins aggregate. She then translates information to answer questions about leather and aim to ultimately be able to make better leather.
What is biophysics?
Today, biology is no longer the descriptive and qualitative science it once was. More and more of the life sciences involves measurements, mathematics and computation, so biology lovers cannot afford to shun numbers and logic. Biophysics is an interdisciplinary science that looks to answer biological questions by using the quantitative strategies used in physics. Since Aruna works at CLRI, which is a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) lab, her work needs to be oriented towards helping the leather industry.
What kind of research does Aruna do? Despite its wide use and value, leather continues to be a material we commonly associate with clothing and furniture covering. Could it be more? CLRI’s biophysicists think so. Leather is made of animal skin proteins and Aruna’s team builds models that will help mimic how these proteins behave inside cells where they are crowded together with other biomolecules. The models allow them to predict ways of inducing changes in protein properties. They also custom design their own instruments to be more suited to analyse the kind of samples they receive than commercially available instruments are.
Biophysical advances in this direction could one day herald an era of ‘smart’ leather which may have enhanced functional properties such as electrical conductivity or magnetism. This will open up leather for use in electronic devices and other applications. Aruna’s work is in this direction.
Sometimes, Aruna is tasked with resolving day-to-day issues faced by leather suppliers. When a shipment of sheep leather ordered by Marks and Spencers reached them damaged, her lab investigated and found out that the damage happened not during processing but during transport.
How did Aruna become a biophysicist? Aruna grew up in Delhi and left for Chennai to do a BSc and MSc at Women’s Christian College and Madras Christian College respectively. Back in the 1970s and 1980s biophysics was just taking off, so she veered off the beaten track of nuclear physics or electronics to do her PhD at the University of Madras in the same lab that legendary protein expert G.N. Ramachandran worked. She spent the next six years doing post-doctoral research in Max Planck Institute in Germany where she worked alongside stalwarts like Nobel laureate Erwin Neher and Hans Kuhn (who was trained by the likes of Linus Pauling and Niels Bohr). She recently retired as the head of CLRI’s Advanced Materials Laboratory or Biophysics laboratory.