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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Phylogenetic inference under varying proportions of indel-induced alignment gaps

Bhakti Dwivedi1 and Sudhindra R Gadagkar12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, OH 46469-2320, USA

2 Department of Natural Sciences, PO Box 1004, 1400 Brush Row Rd, Wilberforce, Ohio 45384, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:211  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-211

Published: 23 August 2009

Abstract

Background

The effect of alignment gaps on phylogenetic accuracy has been the subject of numerous studies. In this study, we investigated the relationship between the total number of gapped sites and phylogenetic accuracy, when the gaps were introduced (by means of computer simulation) to reflect indel (insertion/deletion) events during the evolution of DNA sequences. The resulting (true) alignments were subjected to commonly used gap treatment and phylogenetic inference methods.

Results

(1) In general, there was a strong – almost deterministic – relationship between the amount of gap in the data and the level of phylogenetic accuracy when the alignments were very "gappy", (2) gaps resulting from deletions (as opposed to insertions) contributed more to the inaccuracy of phylogenetic inference, (3) the probabilistic methods (Bayesian, PhyML & "MLε, " a method implemented in DNAML in PHYLIP) performed better at most levels of gap percentage when compared to parsimony (MP) and distance (NJ) methods, with Bayesian analysis being clearly the best, (4) methods that treat gapped sites as missing data yielded less accurate trees when compared to those that attribute phylogenetic signal to the gapped sites (by coding them as binary character data – presence/absence, or as in the MLε method), and (5) in general, the accuracy of phylogenetic inference depended upon the amount of available data when the gaps resulted from mainly deletion events, and the amount of missing data when insertion events were equally likely to have caused the alignment gaps.

Conclusion

When gaps in an alignment are a consequence of indel events in the evolution of the sequences, the accuracy of phylogenetic analysis is likely to improve if: (1) alignment gaps are categorized as arising from insertion events or deletion events and then treated separately in the analysis, (2) the evolutionary signal provided by indels is harnessed in the phylogenetic analysis, and (3) methods that utilize the phylogenetic signal in indels are developed for distance methods too. When the true homology is known and the amount of gaps is 20 percent of the alignment length or less, the methods used in this study are likely to yield trees with 90–100 percent accuracy.