Charles Peter DeLisi (born December 9, 1941) is an American biomedical scientist and the Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering at Boston University. He is noted for seminal contributions to the initiation of the Human Genome Project, for transformative academic leadership, and for research contributions to mathematical and computational immunology, cell biophysics, genomics and protein and nucleic acid structure and function. Recent activities include mathematical finance and climate change.
DeLisi was born in the Bronx, graduated from City College of New York (CCNY) with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history (1963), and received his Ph.D. in physics (1965 -1969) from New York University (NYU).
In 1969 he joined Donald Crothers’ Lab as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoralresearch fellow in the department of chemistry at Yale University. In 1972 he was appointed a theoretical division staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he collaborated with George Bell, a theoretical physicist who a few years earlier had begun pioneering 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), where he and his collaborators established one of the earliest protein and DNA sequence databases fully integrated with machine learning tools for functional inference and developed a number of analytical methods that proved useful in cell biology.
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. 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 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. 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 to 1987.
In 1987, DeLisi returned to New York as a professor and department chair at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.