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Open Access Methodology article

Covariance of maximum likelihood evolutionary distances between sequences aligned pairwise

Christophe Dessimoz12 and Manuel Gil12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Computer Science, ETH Zurich, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

2 Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Switzerland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:179  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-179

Published: 23 June 2008



The estimation of a distance between two biological sequences is a fundamental process in molecular evolution. It is usually performed by maximum likelihood (ML) on characters aligned either pairwise or jointly in a multiple sequence alignment (MSA). Estimators for the covariance of pairs from an MSA are known, but we are not aware of any solution for cases of pairs aligned independently. In large-scale analyses, it may be too costly to compute MSAs every time distances must be compared, and therefore a covariance estimator for distances estimated from pairs aligned independently is desirable. Knowledge of covariances improves any process that compares or combines distances, such as in generalized least-squares phylogenetic tree building, orthology inference, or lateral gene transfer detection.


In this paper, we introduce an estimator for the covariance of distances from sequences aligned pairwise. Its performance is analyzed through extensive Monte Carlo simulations, and compared to the well-known variance estimator of ML distances. Our covariance estimator can be used together with the ML variance estimator to form covariance matrices.


The estimator performs similarly to the ML variance estimator. In particular, it shows no sign of bias when sequence divergence is below 150 PAM units (i.e. above ~29% expected sequence identity). Above that distance, the covariances tend to be underestimated, but then ML variances are also underestimated.