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Open Access Research article

One misdated sequence of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus prevents accurate estimation of its nucleotide substitution rate

Allison L Hicks and Siobain Duffy*

Author affiliations

Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 14 College Farm Rd, New Brunswick, NJ, 08901, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:74  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-74

Published: 30 May 2012



The literature is ripe with phylogenetic estimates of nucleotide substitution rates, especially of measurably evolving species such as RNA viruses. However, it is not known how robust these rate estimates are to inaccuracies in the data, particularly in sampling dates that are used for molecular clock calibration. Here we report on the rate of evolution of the emerging pathogen Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), which has significantly different rates of evolution for the same outer capsid (VP60) gene published in the literature. In an attempt to reconcile the conflicting data and further elucidate details of RHDV ’s evolutionary history, we undertook fresh Bayesian analyses and employed jackknife control methods to produce robust substitution rate and time to most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) estimates for RHDV based on the VP60 and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase genes.


Through these control methods, we were able to identify a single misdated taxon, a passaged lab strain used for vaccine production, which was responsible for depressing the RHDV capsid gene’s rate of evolution by 65%. Without this isolate, the polymerase and the capsid protein genes had nearly identical rates of evolution: 1.90x10-3 nucleotide substitutions/site/year, ns/s/y, (95% highest probability density (HPD) 1.25x10-3-2.55x10-3) and 1.91x10-3 ns/s/y (95% HPD 1.50x10-3-2.34x10-3), respectively.


After excluding the misdated taxon, both genes support a significantly higher substitution rate as well as a relatively recent emergence of RHDV, and obviate the need for previously hypothesized decades of unobserved diversification of the virus. The control methods show that using even one misdated taxon in a large dataset can significantly skew estimates of evolutionary parameters and suggest that it is better practice to use smaller datasets composed of taxa with unequivocal isolation dates. These jackknife controls would be useful for future tip-calibrated rate analyses that include taxa with ambiguous dates of isolation.

RHDV; Substitution rate; Tip-calibrated; BEAST; Misdated taxon