An appreciation of the risks caused by emergent plant viruses is critical in tropical areas that rely heavily on agriculture for subsistence and rural livelihood. Molecular ecology, within 10 years, has unraveled the factors responsible for the emergence of several of the economically most important tropical plant viruses: Rice yellow mottle virus (RYMV), Cassava mosaic geminiviruses (CMGs), Maize streak virus (MSV), and Banana streak virus (BSV). A large range of mechanisms--most unsuspected until recently--were involved: recombination and synergism between virus species, new vector biotypes, genome integration of the virus, host adaptation, and long-distance dispersal. A complex chain of molecular and ecological events resulted in novel virus-vector-plant-environment interactions that led to virus emergence. It invariably involved a major agricultural change: crop introduction, cultural intensification, germplasm movement, and new genotypes. A current challenge is now to complement the analysis of the causes by an assessment of the risks of emergence. Recent attempts to assess the risks of emergence of virulent virus strains are described.