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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Site-specific time heterogeneity of the substitution process and its impact on phylogenetic inference

Béatrice Roure and Hervé Philippe*

Author affiliations

Département de Biochimie, Centre Robert-Cedergren, Université de Montréal, Succursale Centre-Ville, Montréal (Québec) H3C 3J7, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:17  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-17

Published: 14 January 2011



Model violations constitute the major limitation in inferring accurate phylogenies. Characterizing properties of the data that are not being correctly handled by current models is therefore of prime importance. One of the properties of protein evolution is the variation of the relative rate of substitutions across sites and over time, the latter is the phenomenon called heterotachy. Its effect on phylogenetic inference has recently obtained considerable attention, which led to the development of new models of sequence evolution. However, thus far focus has been on the quantitative heterogeneity of the evolutionary process, thereby overlooking more qualitative variations.


We studied the importance of variation of the site-specific amino-acid substitution process over time and its possible impact on phylogenetic inference. We used the CAT model to define an infinite mixture of substitution processes characterized by equilibrium frequencies over the twenty amino acids, a useful proxy for qualitatively estimating the evolutionary process. Using two large datasets, we show that qualitative changes in site-specific substitution properties over time occurred significantly. To test whether this unaccounted qualitative variation can lead to an erroneous phylogenetic tree, we analyzed a concatenation of mitochondrial proteins in which Cnidaria and Porifera were erroneously grouped. The progressive removal of the sites with the most heterogeneous CAT profiles across clades led to the recovery of the monophyly of Eumetazoa (Cnidaria+Bilateria), suggesting that this heterogeneity can negatively influence phylogenetic inference.


The time-heterogeneity of the amino-acid replacement process is therefore an important evolutionary aspect that should be incorporated in future models of sequence change.