Email updates

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

Open Access Research article

On the artefactual parasitic eubacteria clan in conditioned logdet phylogenies: heterotachy and ortholog identification artefacts as explanations

Ajanthah Sangaralingam1, Edward Susko2, David Bryant3 and Matthew Spencer4*

Author Affiliations

1 Centre of Haemato-Oncology, Institute of Cancer, Bart's and the London School of Medicine (QMUL), Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6BQ, UK

2 Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 3J5, Canada

3 Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Otago, P.O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand

4 School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3GP, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:343  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-343

Published: 9 November 2010



Phylogenetic reconstruction methods based on gene content often place all the parasitic and endosymbiotic eubacteria (parasites for short) together in a clan. Many other lines of evidence point to this parasites clan being an artefact. This artefact could be a consequence of the methods used to construct ortholog databases (due to some unknown bias), the methods used to estimate the phylogeny, or both.

We test the idea that the parasites clan is an ortholog identification artefact by analyzing three different ortholog databases (COG, TRIBES, and OFAM), which were constructed using different methods, and are thus unlikely to share the same biases. In each case, we estimate a phylogeny using an improved version of the conditioned logdet distance method. If the parasites clan appears in trees from all three databases, it is unlikely to be an ortholog identification artefact.

Accelerated loss of a subset of gene families in parasites (a form of heterotachy) may contribute to the difficulty of estimating a phylogeny from gene content data. We test the idea that heterotachy is the underlying reason for the estimation of an artefactual parasites clan by applying two different mixture models (phylogenetic and non-phylogenetic), in combination with conditioned logdet. In these models, there are two categories of gene families, one of which has accelerated loss in parasites. Distances are estimated separately from each category by conditioned logdet. This should reduce the tendency for tree estimation methods to group the parasites together, if heterotachy is the underlying reason for estimation of the parasites clan.


The parasites clan appears in conditioned logdet trees estimated from all three databases. This makes it less likely to be an artefact of database construction. The non-phylogenetic mixture model gives trees without a parasites clan. However, the phylogenetic mixture model still results in a tree with a parasites clan. Thus, it is not entirely clear whether heterotachy is the underlying reason for the estimation of a parasites clan. Simulation studies suggest that the phylogenetic mixture model approach may be unsuccessful because the model of gene family gain and loss it uses does not adequately describe the real data.


The most successful methods for estimating a reliable phylogenetic tree for parasitic and endosymbiotic eubacteria from gene content data are still ad-hoc approaches such as the SHOT distance method. however, the improved conditioned logdet method we developed here may be useful for non-parasites and can be accessed at webcite