Charles DeLisi

Charles DeLisi

Charles DeLisi (born 1941) is the Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering at Boston University, and also served as Dean of the College of Engineering from 1990 to 2000. Prior to moving to Boston University, he was Professor and Chair of Biomathematical Sciences and Professor of Molecular Biology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (1987–1989), Director of the United States Department of Energy's Health and Environmental Research Programs (1985–1987), Section Chief at National Institutes of Health (1975–1985), and Theoretical Division Staff Scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (1972–1975).

In 1999 he initiated the Boston University graduate program in Bioinformatics, which now includes approximately 120 students and 50 faculty from across the university.

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 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 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 crystallogrphy. 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 1985, 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 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 nucelar energy some four decades earlier continued to plague the planet.

In addition to the technical 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]


DeLisi is recipient of numerous awards including the Presidential Citizens Medal, awarded to him by President Clinton for his seminal role in initiating the Human Genome Project.[10]

Earlier years

Charles DeLisi grew up in the Bronx, New York, going to New York public schools and living with his maternal grandparents. He earned a Bachelor's Degree in 1963 from CCNY and later continued his educational career at NYU, where he earned his PhD in physics.

DeLisi later went on to make many achievements at several different college campuses as well as elsewhere. Some of these include being a post-doctoral fellow at Yale for three years and being hired as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Engineering and Applied Sciences.


  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. Nat. 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

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