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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Optimizing substitution matrix choice and gap parameters for sequence alignment

Robert C Edgar

Author Affiliations

45 Monterey Dr, Tiburon, CA 94920, USA

BMC Bioinformatics 2009, 10:396  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-10-396

Published: 2 December 2009



While substitution matrices can readily be computed from reference alignments, it is challenging to compute optimal or approximately optimal gap penalties. It is also not well understood which substitution matrices are the most effective when alignment accuracy is the goal rather than homolog recognition. Here a new parameter optimization procedure, POP, is described and applied to the problems of optimizing gap penalties and selecting substitution matrices for pair-wise global protein alignments.


POP is compared to a recent method due to Kim and Kececioglu and found to achieve from 0.2% to 1.3% higher accuracies on pair-wise benchmarks extracted from BALIBASE. The VTML matrix series is shown to be the most accurate on several global pair-wise alignment benchmarks, with VTML200 giving best or close to the best performance in all tests. BLOSUM matrices are found to be slightly inferior, even with the marginal improvements in the bug-fixed RBLOSUM series. The PAM series is significantly worse, giving accuracies typically 2% less than VTML. Integer rounding is found to cause slight degradations in accuracy. No evidence is found that selecting a matrix based on sequence divergence improves accuracy, suggesting that the use of this heuristic in CLUSTALW may be ineffective. Using VTML200 is found to improve the accuracy of CLUSTALW by 8% on BALIBASE and 5% on PREFAB.


The hypothesis that more accurate alignments of distantly related sequences may be achieved using low-identity matrices is shown to be false for commonly used matrix types. Source code and test data is freely available from the author's web site at webcite.