Charles DeLisi

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Boston University

Charles DeLisi (born December 9, 1941) is an American biomedical scientist and the Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering at Boston University. He has made pioneering contributions to mathematical and computational immunology, cell biophysics, genomics, and protein and nucleic acid structure and function. DeLisi has been called the father of the Human Genome Project and is widely regarded as a transformative academic leader.

Early life and education[edit]

DeLisi was born in the Bronx, graduated from CCNY with a B.A. in history (1963), and received his Ph.D. in physics (1969) from NYU. In 1969 he joined Donald Crothers’ Lab as an NIH post-doctoral Fellow in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University, where he remained until 1972. In 1971 he was also a senior lecturer in the Department of Engineering and Applied Science, where he taught digital electronics.

In 1968, he married Lynn DeLisi (née Moskowitz), who is currently Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Attending Senior Psychiatrist at the Brockton VA. They have two children—Jacqueline and Daniel—and four grandchildren: Samuel Cheever, Kensushi DeLisi, Sadye Cheever, and Aili DeLisi.

Scientific career[edit]

In 1972, DeLisi was appointed theoretical division staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. There he began his collaboration with George Bell, a theoretical physicist who a few years earlier had begun seminal research in mathematical immunology. DeLisi was subsequently appointed senior scientist (1975–1982) at the National Cancer Institute, NIH, and founding head of the Section on Theoretical Immunology (1982–1985).

DeLisi was an early champion of the controversial idea that in cell biology, just as in the physical sciences, the mathematical formulation of concepts could predict phenomena that would not otherwise be apparent, and could thereby drive experimental research in new directions. The approach is seen in a number of investigations. His 1979 paper[1] predicted, several years in advance of experimental demonstration, that the signal generated when a nerve growth factor binds its plasma membrane receptor is transduced by receptor dimerization.

In immunology, DeLisi was a strong proponent of the controversial hypothesis that the response of T cells to antigenic stimulation involves the formation of a ternary complex. Predictions based on the mathematical formulation of that idea, the amphipathic hypothesis,[2][3] provided strong support for what was ultimately demonstrated conclusively by X-ray crystallography. The mathematical methods, developed initially with Jay Berzofsky, were subsequently extended and modified by many others, presaging the now widely used bioinformatic approaches to guide the design of peptide vaccines.[4]

At the same time, the Section on Theoretical Immunology (STI), which DeLisi founded several years earlier at the NIH, had introduced the use of supervised learning algorithms for the identification of functional regions in DNA[5] and proteins.[6] The first database integrating DNA and protein sequences with analytical tools[7] was developed in collaboration with Minoru Kanehisa, who was then a visiting fellow at STI.

In 1986, as director of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Health and Environmental Research Programs, DeLisi and his advisors proposed, planned and defended before the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Congress, the Human Genome Project. The proposal created a storm of controversy but received strong support from Alvin Trivelpiece, who was head of DOE's Office of Science, and William Flynn Martin, the Deputy Secretary of Energy. It was included in President Ronald Reagan's FY 1987 budget submission to the Congress and subsequently passed both the House and the Senate, the latter with the essential support of Senator Pete Domenici (R, NM). In the spring of 1987, shortly before leaving the DOE, DeLisi established an ethical studies component of the Project.[8] The goal was to set aside 3-5% of the funding in order to engage the best minds in the humanities and social sciences to develop a body of thought that would inform decisions about the development and deployment of the radically new technologies destined to emerge from the completion of the Project. In taking this step DeLisi was likely influenced by the fact that he was working for an agency that provided the vast majority of the nation's nuclear physics budget, and the awareness that the consequences of the rapid development of nuclear energy some four decades earlier continued to plague the planet.

In addition to the medical and scientific advances engendered by the Human Genome Project, it and its progeny have had a profound effect on the sociology and culture of cell biology. The computer science community, in particular, moved with extraordinary dexterity into cell biology, transforming the field and creating a record of discovery destined to provide material for a remarkable story in the sociology of late 20th and early 21st Century science. Computational and mathematical methods are now widely viewed as central to progress in cell biology, a change that is forcing even the most conservative universities to respond to a new paradigm in biological education.[9] The Human Genome Project enabled a rapid and smooth transformation of all aspects of DOE's health and environmental and energy programs, propelling the Office of Health and Environmental Research to a position of international importance.

Commemorating the significance of the Human Genome Project, the DOE installed a bronze plaque outside room F-202 at its Germantown, Maryland facility. The plaque reads,

From this room the Human Genome Project evolved from a mere concept to a revolutionary research program through the vision and determination of Dr. Charles DeLisi, Associate Director of Energy Research for Health and Environmental Research, 1985–1987.

In 1987, DeLisi returned to New York as a professor and department chair at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In little more than two years, he stabilized a small Department, increasing the budget 3-fold, and introducing programs in DNA structure and function, protein structure and function and clinical trials. He is listed among Mount Sinai’s famous faculty.

Boston University years[edit]

In 1990 DeLisi joined Boston University (BU) as dean of the College of Engineering. Under his leadership, the college added 200,000 square ft. of space, established 60 new labs and two major research centers, one in Photonics and one in Manufacturing Engineering. In addition, the Biomedical Engineering (BME) department added a new dimension to the field, namely molecular and cellular engineering, and was the home of the seminal research in synthetic biology. Until then, BME departments conducted primarily organ-level engineering.

In 1999 he initiated the Nation's first Ph.D. program in bioinformatics. With more than 150 Ph.D. alumni in bioinformatics and systems biology, the Boston University program remains the largest program in the world. In 2000, after 10 years as dean, DeLisi returned to a full-time faculty position as dean emeritus and Metcalf Professor. During his tenure as dean, he and the college had the good fortune of a particularly supportive central administration, led by John Silber, Jon Westling, and Dennis Berkey.

DeLisi is the recipient of a number of awards and honors, including the US DOE Exceptional Service Award (Secretary Richardson), The Smithsonian Platinum Technology Award for Pioneering Leadership (shared), the Informa Clinical and Research Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Presidential Citizens Medal (President Clinton) for his seminal role in initiating the Human Genome Project.[10][11]. In 2011 he was made an honorary citizen of Marineo, Palermo, Italy.


  1. ^ DeLisi, C.: Physical-Chemical and Biological Implications of Receptor Clustering. In DeLisi, C., and Blumenthal, R. (Ed.): Physical Chemical Aspects of Cell Surface Events in Cellular Regulation. New York, Elsevier, North Holland, 1979.
  2. ^ DeLisi, C., and Berzofsky, J. T Cell Antigenic Sites are Amphipathic Structures, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 82: 7048-7052, 1985.
  3. ^ Cornette, J, Berzofsky, J. Margalit H. and DeLisi, C. Periodic Variation in Side Chain Polarities of T Cell Antigenic Peptides Correlates with Their Structure and Activity, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 8368-8372, 1995.
  4. ^ W. Martin, A. Bosma, H. Sbai and A.S. De Groot. The use of bioinformatics for identifying class I restricted T cell epitopes. Methods (Epitope Mapping Issue). Bill Kwok, editor, Methods 29 (2003) 289–298.
  5. ^ Nakata, K., Kanehisa, M., and DeLisi, C.: Prediction of Splice Junctions in m RNA Sequences, Nucleic Acids Research, 13, 5327-5340, 1985.
  6. ^ Klein, P., Kanehisa, M. and DeLisi, C.: The Detection and Classification of Membrane Spanning Proteins, Biochemica et Biophysica Acta, 815, 468, 1985.
  7. ^ Kanehisa, M., Klein, P., Greif, P. and DeLisi, C.: Computer Analysis and Structure Prediction of Nucleic Acids and Protein. Nucleic Acids Research 12: 417-428, 1984.
  8. ^ Robert Cooke-Deegan, Gene Wars, p 262, W. H. Norton, New York, 1994.
  9. ^ C DeLisi, A Time to Abandon Hedgehogs, Genome Technology, 2001.
  10. ^ Human Genome News ( Vol.11, No. 3-4, July 2001.
  11. ^ Bevatron’s Encyclopedia of Inventions: a compendium of technological leaps, ground break discoveries and scientific breakthroughs that changed the world. The Human Genome Project, Charles DeLisi, pp 360-362.