When individuals are considering how to minimize their carbon footprint, thoughts often turn to air travel with its large emissions, while some small day-to-day changes may be overlooked. The obvious daily changes that can be made include food choices—such as reducing meat and dairy consumption; personal energy use and supplier; and reduced consumerism.
In the Colours of Nature dye house, Vijayakumar Varathan is busy prepping a vat of indigo. At 51, he looks frail, with a tanned body made mostly of bones, but he runs to and fro, setting up an open fire where he’ll brew cauldrons of natural colorants made from plants.
He’s worked here for 15 years. But until his early 30s, Varathan mixed chemicals in a conventional clothing factory in the same region of southern India. There he developed a disease that caused layers of his skin to peel off. Even today, it is discolored. “It was pretty bad,” he says, in his fragmented English. “But I didn’t have a choice.”
You’re watching the life cycle of a Streptomyces coelicolor. It’s a strain of bacteria that’s found in the soil where it lives in a community with other organisms, decomposing organic matter. Coelicolor is a beautiful organism.
A powerhouse for synthesizing organic chemical compounds. It produces an antibiotic called actinorhodin, which ranges in color from blue to pink and purple, depending on the acidity of its environment. That it produces these pigment molecules sparked my curiosity and led me to collaborate closely with coelicolor. It is an unlikely partnership, but it’s one that completely transformed my practice as a materials designer.