Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Bioinformatics and BioMed Central.

Open Access Research article

Fast computation of distance estimators

Isaac Elias* and Jens Lagergren

Author Affiliations

Dept. of Numerical Analysis and Computer Science, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, SE-106 91, Sweden

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Bioinformatics 2007, 8:89  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-8-89

Published: 13 March 2007



Some distance methods are among the most commonly used methods for reconstructing phylogenetic trees from sequence data. The input to a distance method is a distance matrix, containing estimated pairwise distances between all pairs of taxa. Distance methods themselves are often fast, e.g., the famous and popular Neighbor Joining (NJ) algorithm reconstructs a phylogeny of n taxa in time O(n3). Unfortunately, the fastest practical algorithms known for Computing the distance matrix, from n sequences of length l, takes time proportional to lยทn2. Since the sequence length typically is much larger than the number of taxa, the distance estimation is the bottleneck in phylogeny reconstruction. This bottleneck is especially apparent in reconstruction of large phylogenies or in applications where many trees have to be reconstructed, e.g., bootstrapping and genome wide applications.


We give an advanced algorithm for Computing the number of mutational events between DNA sequences which is significantly faster than both Phylip and Paup. Moreover, we give a new method for estimating pairwise distances between sequences which contain ambiguity Symbols. This new method is shown to be more accurate as well as faster than earlier methods.


Our novel algorithm for Computing distance estimators provides a valuable tool in phylogeny reconstruction. Since the running time of our distance estimation algorithm is comparable to that of most distance methods, the previous bottleneck is removed. All distance methods, such as NJ, require a distance matrix as input and, hence, our novel algorithm significantly improves the overall running time of all distance methods. In particular, we show for real world biological applications how the running time of phylogeny reconstruction using NJ is improved from a matter of hours to a matter of seconds.