Margalith’s breakthrough achievement was his discovery of Bti – a naturally occurring bacteria that is lethal to mosquitoes and black flies.Some people might not view the nickname ‘Mr. Mosquito’ as particularly flattering. But for Professor Yoel Margalith, known by that name from the jungles of Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe the title is a badge of honor.
Millions of lives have been saved, thanks to Margalith’s career, which has been devoted to initiating and supervising programs to eradicate mosquitoes and black flies in Israel and around the world. The Ben-Gurion University professor’s efforts in introducing integrated biological control – a chemical-free method of eliminating these insects – has not only protected millions from mosquito-borne diseases like malaria – but at the same time, the use of his method has protected many regions from the effects of chemical pollution due to insecticide.
It is particularly moving that a survivor of the Holocaust has been able to save so many lives. Born in Yugoslavia, Margalith survived Bergen-Belzen and Terezienstadt Concentration Camps, and immigrated to Israel in 1948. A member of BGU’s Faculty of Natural Sciences since 1978, Margalith received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has had a long and distinguished academic career, capped by his current position of Director of the University’s Center for Biological Control.
His years of work and achievement were honored this month with the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, presented to Margalit at a ceremony in Los Angeles on April 4. Administered by the University of Southern California, the Tyler Prize is the premier award in the world for environmental science, energy and medicine, honoring those who have focused worldwide attention on environmental problems by their discoveries and the solutions that resulted.
Margalith’s breakthrough achievement was his discovery of Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) – a naturally occurring bacteria that is lethal to mosquitoes and black flies. According to the Tyler Prize Executive Committee, Margalith’s discovery “saved millions of lives with minimal environmental impact.” His work, they said, “has had an enormous effect on human health and on environmental quality.”
The introduction of Bti has led to the control of many fly- and mosquito-borne diseases, such as river blindness in Africa and malarial infections along the Yangtze River in China. Since 1993, Margalith has cooperated with Palestinian and Jordanian scientists since 1993 to eradicate the mosquitoes in the Jordan Valley, and is at the forefront of disease control around the world. He is currently working on projects in the Central Asian Republics and Azerbaijan.
“Our university is inspired by Prof. Margalith?s work in disease control and salutes his achievements in endeavoring to preserve the delicate balance of the earth’s ecosystem,” says BGU President Prof. Avishay Braverman. “In particular, we are proud of his collaboration with Palestinian and Jordanian scientists, as this work is an expression of our hope to build the bridge to peace with Israel’s neighbors in the region.”
Those who are close to Margalith describe him as hard-working and extremely kind.
Moshe Taig first got to know Margalith 20 years ago, when he asked for help with a mosquito problem in his neighborhood. “We lived in a place near a wadi (dried river bed) with many mosquitoes, and really suffered from it: our children couldn’t fall asleep. He solved the problem.” Taig finds it ironic that “this man is so well-known around the world, and less so in Israel.”
The reason, he says, is his modesty. “He is the most down-to-earth man you can imagine. He is a professor, yet will sit with anyone and talk to them as an equal.”
Despite his age and delicate health – a hospitalization prevented him from traveling to Los Angeles to receive the award – Margalith has continued to travel the world to continue his work.
The importance of Margalith’s Bti is that it is an environmentally safe biological pesticide found in nature. Used as a biological control agent, the bacteria kill immature mosquitoes before they begin to fly without harming the surrounding flora and fauna, including the natural enemies of larval mosquitoes.
This natural enemy to the mosquito and black fly is often far cheaper than chemical alternatives. No significant resistance to Bti has been reported in over twenty years of use. Bti has increasingly been chosen for controlling mosquito and black fly born diseases. Bti has been used very effectively against river blindness, along the Volta River in eleven African countries. The sight of millions has been saved and repopulation of deserted river valleys has been initiated. Additionally, malarial infections from pesticide resistant mosquitoes have dropped by 90% along the Yangtze River, China, which has a population of over 20 million people.
Margalith has expanded his work beyond merely promoting the use of Bti. Taking it a step further, he has introduced the concept of Integrated Biological Control (IBC) against mosquitoes in the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. Integrated Biological Control includes not only production and introduction of Bti into mosquito and black fly infested areas but also involves ecological manipulation of the mosquito and black fly habitat as well as introduction of fish predators to the insects breeding areas.
In addition to his work in the field Dr. Margalith has continued to be an active researcher, teacher and author. He has published some 60 scientific articles, the author of 2 books and co-editor of several collective volumes on Bacterial control of insect pests.
The Tyler Prize is only the latest in his list of honors. Internationally recognized as the leader in his field, Margalith has won numerous awards, including an Honorary Doctorate from the Universidad Autónoma de Neuvo León in Monterrey, Mexico; the Presidential Citation Award from the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) and a Special Citation Award by the Greek Mosquito Abatement Organization. The Society of Invertebrate Pathology bestowed upon him a special award for his achievements in Integrated Biological Control (IBC). He was also made the first honorary member of the European Mosquito Control Association. The AMCA recognized Margalith for his work promoting “the use of Bti throughout the world, thereby aiding in environmentally sound mosquito and blackfly control on all continents.”