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Open Access Research article

Analysis on the reconstruction accuracy of the Fitch method for inferring ancestral states

Jialiang Yang, Jun Li, Liuhuan Dong and Stefan Grünewald*

Author Affiliations

CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology, Key Laboratory of Computational Biology, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai 200031, PR China

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BMC Bioinformatics 2011, 12:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-12-18

Published: 13 January 2011



As one of the most widely used parsimony methods for ancestral reconstruction, the Fitch method minimizes the total number of hypothetical substitutions along all branches of a tree to explain the evolution of a character. Due to the extensive usage of this method, it has become a scientific endeavor in recent years to study the reconstruction accuracies of the Fitch method. However, most studies are restricted to 2-state evolutionary models and a study for higher-state models is needed since DNA sequences take the format of 4-state series and protein sequences even have 20 states.


In this paper, the ambiguous and unambiguous reconstruction accuracy of the Fitch method are studied for N-state evolutionary models. Given an arbitrary phylogenetic tree, a recurrence system is first presented to calculate iteratively the two accuracies. As complete binary tree and comb-shaped tree are the two extremal evolutionary tree topologies according to balance, we focus on the reconstruction accuracies on these two topologies and analyze their asymptotic properties. Then, 1000 Yule trees with 1024 leaves are generated and analyzed to simulate real evolutionary scenarios. It is known that more taxa not necessarily increase the reconstruction accuracies under 2-state models. The result under N-state models is also tested.


In a large tree with many leaves, the reconstruction accuracies of using all taxa are sometimes less than those of using a leaf subset under N-state models. For complete binary trees, there always exists an equilibrium interval [a, b] of conservation probability, in which the limiting ambiguous reconstruction accuracy equals to the probability of randomly picking a state. The value b decreases with the increase of the number of states, and it seems to converge. When the conservation probability is greater than b, the reconstruction accuracies of the Fitch method increase rapidly. The reconstruction accuracies on 1000 simulated Yule trees also exhibit similar behaviors. For comb-shaped trees, the limiting reconstruction accuracies of using all taxa are always less than or equal to those of using the nearest root-to-leaf path when the conservation probability is not less than <a onClick="popup('','MathML',630,470);return false;" target="_blank" href="">View MathML</a>. As a result, more taxa are suggested for ancestral reconstruction when the tree topology is balanced and the sequences are highly similar, and a few taxa close to the root are recommended otherwise.