Science

Aruna – The Leather Detective

Aruna Dhathathreyan, a biophysicist at the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai, is an example of how crucial good teachers are to students.

Aruna Dhathathreyan. Credit: The Life of Science

Aruna Dhathathreyan. Credit: The Life of Science

“Which sample is this? Is it sheep?”

“No. It’s Satish’s goat leather. It has some white patches that we’re looking into.”

“Ah, did you check for calcium?”

“Yes. Also sodium and magnesium.”

“Sometimes this happens during retanning you know. Even a slight temperature change while soaking can be the problem. Maybe you should check that too.”

There is a quiet but constant buzz of activity around the biophysics laboratory at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) in Chennai – technicians tinker with the atomic force microscope, a researcher mills around to get his sample tested, a PhD student adjusts the controls of a spectrophotometer, while another makes furious scribbles in her notebook. Every so often, Aruna Dhathathreyan quips in with an encouraging or helpful suggestion that her lab members eagerly take in.

Aruna’s lab studies protein folding and misfolding under different conditions. “When proteins are inside cells, they cannot behave the same way as they do as free molecules. This is because they are in a small space with many other biomolecules,” she explains. This causes crowding or aggregation, which can affect our health in the form of  diseases like osteoarthritis, or industries in the form of bad leather.

“Leather is made from animal skin and involves the stabilisation of skin proteins using salts, a process called tanning. Tanning involves aggregation and that is where this lab comes in,” says Aruna. The team builds models that will help mimic protein behaviour. Based on this, they can predict how to induce favourable changes in the protein’s properties and give us better leather. “Since most of us here are physicists, we also design our own instruments that are better suited to study our samples than commercially available instruments.”

Working at a CSIR lab

CLRI is one of the many institutes scattered around the country that is affiliated with India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Judging from the atmosphere here, it certainly looks like CSIR labs can be a really interesting place to work in. What makes them different is that unlike other institutes like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), or the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), CSIR labs need to prioritise solving problems faced by industries – in CLRI’s case, the leather industry.

“This means that our research can’t be only open-ended and individual-driven, but also has to address local issues” explained Aruna. She cited an episode where the lab was tasked with finding out why a shipment of sheep leather ordered by Marks and Spencers reached them damaged. Much to the supplier’s relief, investigations revealed that the damage happened not during processing but during transport.

The respect the other lab members have for Aruna is as palpable as experienced head biophysicist’s fondness for them. Her comfort in this role stems from the fact that she’s spent enough time in most of their shoes at some point in her life.

The resultant image is observed. This is a goat leather sample.

The resultant image is observed. This is a goat leather sample.

A vintage electron microscope that the team is hesitant to dispose of because it still works despite being out of date.

A vintage electron microscope that the team is hesitant to dispose of because it still works despite being out of date.