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Detecting coevolution without phylogenetic trees? Tree-ignorant metrics of coevolution perform as well as tree-aware metrics

J Gregory Caporaso1, Sandra Smit2, Brett C Easton3, Lawrence Hunter4, Gavin A Huttley3 and Rob Knight5*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, University of Colorado Denver, Aurora, CO, USA

2 Centre for Integrative Bioinformatics VU (IBIVU), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands

3 Computational Genomics Laboratory, John Curtin School of Medical Research, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia

4 Center for Computational Pharmacology, University of Colorado Denver, Aurora, CO, USA

5 Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:327  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-327

Published: 3 December 2008



Identifying coevolving positions in protein sequences has myriad applications, ranging from understanding and predicting the structure of single molecules to generating proteome-wide predictions of interactions. Algorithms for detecting coevolving positions can be classified into two categories: tree-aware, which incorporate knowledge of phylogeny, and tree-ignorant, which do not. Tree-ignorant methods are frequently orders of magnitude faster, but are widely held to be insufficiently accurate because of a confounding of shared ancestry with coevolution. We conjectured that by using a null distribution that appropriately controls for the shared-ancestry signal, tree-ignorant methods would exhibit equivalent statistical power to tree-aware methods. Using a novel t-test transformation of coevolution metrics, we systematically compared four tree-aware and five tree-ignorant coevolution algorithms, applying them to myoglobin and myosin. We further considered the influence of sequence recoding using reduced-state amino acid alphabets, a common tactic employed in coevolutionary analyses to improve both statistical and computational performance.


Consistent with our conjecture, the transformed tree-ignorant metrics (particularly Mutual Information) often outperformed the tree-aware metrics. Our examination of the effect of recoding suggested that charge-based alphabets were generally superior for identifying the stabilizing interactions in alpha helices. Performance was not always improved by recoding however, indicating that the choice of alphabet is critical.


The results suggest that t-test transformation of tree-ignorant metrics can be sufficient to control for patterns arising from shared ancestry.