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Open Access Open Badges Research article

A scalable method for identifying frequent subtrees in sets of large phylogenetic trees

Avinash Ramu1, Tamer Kahveci2* and J Gordon Burleigh3

Author Affiliations

1 Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA

2 Computer and Information Science and Engineering, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA

3 Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2012, 13:256  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-13-256

Published: 3 October 2012



We consider the problem of finding the maximum frequent agreement subtrees (MFASTs) in a collection of phylogenetic trees. Existing methods for this problem often do not scale beyond datasets with around 100 taxa. Our goal is to address this problem for datasets with over a thousand taxa and hundreds of trees.


We develop a heuristic solution that aims to find MFASTs in sets of many, large phylogenetic trees. Our method works in multiple phases. In the first phase, it identifies small candidate subtrees from the set of input trees which serve as the seeds of larger subtrees. In the second phase, it combines these small seeds to build larger candidate MFASTs. In the final phase, it performs a post-processing step that ensures that we find a frequent agreement subtree that is not contained in a larger frequent agreement subtree. We demonstrate that this heuristic can easily handle data sets with 1000 taxa, greatly extending the estimation of MFASTs beyond current methods.


Although this heuristic does not guarantee to find all MFASTs or the largest MFAST, it found the MFAST in all of our synthetic datasets where we could verify the correctness of the result. It also performed well on large empirical data sets. Its performance is robust to the number and size of the input trees. Overall, this method provides a simple and fast way to identify strongly supported subtrees within large phylogenetic hypotheses.

Phylogenetic trees; Frequent subtree