Obituary - Warren L. DeLano (1972 - 2009)

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Warren L. DeLano (1972 - 2009)

ACA RefleXions, Winter 2009


On November 3rd our community tragically lost Warren DeLano, widely known as the creator of the molecular graphics program PyMOL. Warren grew up in Palo Alto, California at a time and with a loving family that greatly valued the development of computer technology and science. His life-long commitment to computational biosciences began when Warren was an undergraduate research student in Axel Brunger’s laboratory majoring in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (MB&B) and Computer Science at Yale University. He initially worked on structure prediction of helical bundles and molecular replacement, and then made a major contribution to the Crystallography and NMR System (CNS) by implementing powerful scripting capabilities for the new system. He also started to work on what would eventually become the Open Source molecular graphics program PyMOL.

As a graduate student at UCSF in Jim Wells’ laboratory at Genentech, he worked on the use of peptide-phage display to see if naïve peptides would seek out a well-known promiscuous epitope at the Fc region of antibodies. Remarkably his phage selected peptide, shown by the x-ray structure to be a simple b-hairpin, bound exactly over the promiscuous epitope! Importantly he revealed the highly adaptive nature of these interfaces. To visualize this adaptive property he began to further develop the software for PyMol in his spare time. In particular he developed a special application he called RigiMol: one of the first molecular movie programs which allows one to morph between static structures.

Warren’s impact on crystallographic software spreads beyond PyMOL and CNS, spanning almost two decades. Paul Adams retained him as a consultant in the very early days of the Phenix project. There ensued many lively and passionate discussions about how to develop a new crystallographic software system with the current computational tools. Warren’s insight and experience developing PyMOL were major contributors to the decision to use Python as the scripting language in PHENIX. This choice also made it easy for the Phenix developers to integrate PyMOL with PHENIX.

He left us with much undone that he wanted to do. Warren was a truly visionary thinker and to be deprived of his future work is a huge blow to the scientific community.

To honor Warren’s memory we have put together a mission statement for the Warren L. DeLano Memorial Award for Computational Biosciences, with the approval of Warren’s family. This award shall be given to a top computational bioscientist in recognition of the contributions made by Warren L. DeLano to creating powerful visualization tools for three dimensional structures and making them freely accessible. The award, accompanying lecture, and a honorarium will be given annually in the context of a national bioscience meeting or a Bay Area gathering of computational bioscientists at Stanford, UCSF or UC Berkeley. In selecting recipients of the award special emphasis will be given for Open Source developments and service to the bioscience community. 

The award selection committee, consisting of experts in the computational and biological sciences, will accept nominations from anyone. Further information can be found at

- Axel T. Brunger and James A. Wells