Tulip Breaking Virus: The Bloom Boom

Aliases: tulip breaking virus, TBV, lily mosaic virus, lily streak virus, tulip mosaic virus

Taste is notoriously fickle. However, while popular opinion waxes and wanes in largely inscrutable cycles, there are some patterns: the new and the rare are consistently sought after, and when they’re found, high prices are paid for them. Supplying the next fad can be a lucrative business, and many have pinned their livelihoods on the chance of getting rich quick only to have their hopes (and bank accounts) crushed when the bubble bursts. The textbook example of this economic phenomenon isn’t what you might imagine. The first such raging fashion was caused by tulips infected with tulip breaking virus.

In the 17th century, tulips were big business in the Netherlands. The public was fascinated with them, and any source of novelty in the blooms was highly desirable, as well as profitable. Enter tulip breaking virus, which causes a mosaic in tulip petals that results in a beautiful, multicolored flower. These varieties were a sensation; coveted on the market, and featured in many of the famous still lifes of the time.

red and white tulip display symptoms of Tulip Breaking Virus
Guard your guilders.

Because breaking is very unpredictable, the flowers remained rare, and cost unconscionable amounts. At the peak of tulipmania, as this cultural phenomenon is called, a single bulb of a particularly desirable variety sold for 3,000 guilders. This was the equivalent of a ship, eight pigs, four oxen, twelve sheep, a silver drinking cup, as well as tons (literally) of foodstuffs. Obviously, the potential payoff was tantalizing and the tulips became the objects of theft and heavy, highly speculative investment. The bubble burst in 1637, when demand for the flowers waned, selling increased, prices dropped, and speculators defaulted on their loans, causing widespread bankruptcy1.

Cause: Tulip breaking virus (TBV) is transmitted by aphids, the mosquitos of the plant world. The virus binds inside their piercing mouthparts when the aphid feeds on an infected plant, and is released when a new plant is probed. Once infected, the plant’s distribution of anthocyanins (the pigments responsible for petal color) is disrupted, because the virus silences genes along the pigment pathway. Although TBV has spread around the globe, the virus has a limited host range; it can only infect members of two genera in the plant family Liliaceae: Tulipa and Lilium1.

Consequence: TBV results in characteristic mosaicking on the petals, dramatically described as stripes, streaks, feathering, and flames. However, in this case, beauty is pain: the virus also causes reduced seed set, pollen production, and flower size. Symptoms vary by plant variety and age at infection1.

Cure: There is no cure for TBV. To be fair, as this disease is coveted, rather than feared, there appears to have been little effort put into finding one.


1. Lesnaw, JA, & SA Ghabrial. (2000). Tulip breaking: Past, present, and future. Plant Disease, 84(10): 1052-1060.

Image source: http://oldtulips.org/index.php?section=broken&content=index

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