Email updates

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

Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

What is the phylogenetic signal limit from mitogenomes? The reconciliation between mitochondrial and nuclear data in the Insecta class phylogeny

Gerard Talavera12 and Roger Vila1

Author affiliations

1 Institut de Biologia Evolutiva (CSIC-UPF), Pg. Marítim de la Barceloneta 37, 08003 Barcelona, Spain

2 Departament de Genètica i Microbiologia, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Edifici C, 08193 Bellaterra, Spain

Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:315  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-315

Published: 27 October 2011



Efforts to solve higher-level evolutionary relationships within the class Insecta by using mitochondrial genomic data are hindered due to fast sequence evolution of several groups, most notably Hymenoptera, Strepsiptera, Phthiraptera, Hemiptera and Thysanoptera. Accelerated rates of substitution on their sequences have been shown to have negative consequences in phylogenetic inference. In this study, we tested several methodological approaches to recover phylogenetic signal from whole mitochondrial genomes. As a model, we used two classical problems in insect phylogenetics: The relationships within Paraneoptera and within Holometabola. Moreover, we assessed the mitochondrial phylogenetic signal limits in the deeper Eumetabola dataset, and we studied the contribution of individual genes.


Long-branch attraction (LBA) artefacts were detected in all the datasets. Methods using Bayesian inference outperformed maximum likelihood approaches, and LBA was avoided in Paraneoptera and Holometabola when using protein sequences and the site-heterogeneous mixture model CAT. The better performance of this method was evidenced by resulting topologies matching generally accepted hypotheses based on nuclear and/or morphological data, and was confirmed by cross-validation and simulation analyses. Using the CAT model, the order Strepsiptera was recovered as sister to Coleoptera for the first time using mitochondrial sequences, in agreement with recent results based on large nuclear and morphological datasets. Also the Hymenoptera-Mecopterida association was obtained, leaving Coleoptera and Strepsiptera as the basal groups of the holometabolan insects, which coincides with one of the two main competing hypotheses. For the Paraneroptera, the currently accepted non-monophyly of Homoptera was documented as a phylogenetic novelty for mitochondrial data. However, results were not satisfactory when exploring the entire Eumetabola, revealing the limits of the phylogenetic signal that can be extracted from Insecta mitogenomes. Based on the combined use of the five best topology-performing genes we obtained comparable results to whole mitogenomes, highlighting the important role of data quality.


We show for the first time that mitogenomic data agrees with nuclear and morphological data for several of the most controversial insect evolutionary relationships, adding a new independent source of evidence to study relationships among insect orders. We propose that deeper divergences cannot be inferred with the current available methods due to sequence saturation and compositional bias inconsistencies. Our exploratory analysis indicates that the CAT model is the best dealing with LBA and it could be useful for other groups and datasets with similar phylogenetic difficulties.