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This article is part of the supplement: First International Conference on Phylogenomics

Open Access Research

Identifying dramatic selection shifts in phylogenetic trees

Karin S Dorman

Author Affiliations

Departments of Statistics and Genetics Development & Cell Biology, and the Program in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7(Suppl 1):S10  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-S1-S10

Published: 8 February 2007



The rate of evolution varies spatially along genomes and temporally in time. The presence of evolutionary rate variation is an informative signal that often marks functional regions of genomes and historical selection events. There exist many tests for temporal rate variation, or heterotachy, that start by partitioning sampled sequences into two or more groups and testing rate homogeneity among the groups. I develop a Bayesian method to infer phylogenetic trees with a divergence point, or dramatic temporal shifts in selection pressure that affect many nucleotide sites simultaneously, located at an unknown position in the tree.


Simulation demonstrates that the method is most able to detect divergence points when rate variation and the number of affected sites is high, but not beyond biologically relevant values. The method is applied to two viral data sets. A divergence point is identified separating the B and C subtypes, two genetically distinct variants of HIV that have spread into different human populations with the AIDS epidemic. In contrast, no strong signal of temporal rate variation is found in a sample of F and H genotypes, two genetic variants of HBV that have likely evolved with humans during their immigration and expansion into the Americas.


Temporal shifts in evolutionary rate of sufficient magnitude are detectable in the history of sampled sequences. The ability to detect such divergence points without the need to specify a prior hypothesis about the location or timing of the divergence point should help scientists identify historically important selection events and decipher mechanisms of evolution.