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PROCOV: maximum likelihood estimation of protein phylogeny under covarion models and site-specific covarion pattern analysis

Huai-Chun Wang123*, Edward Susko13 and Andrew J Roger23

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S. B3H 3J5, Canada

2 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S. B3H 1X5, Canada

3 Centre for Comparative Genomics and Evolutionary Bioinformatics, Dalhousie University, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:225  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-225

Published: 8 September 2009



The covarion hypothesis of molecular evolution holds that selective pressures on a given amino acid or nucleotide site are dependent on the identity of other sites in the molecule that change throughout time, resulting in changes of evolutionary rates of sites along the branches of a phylogenetic tree. At the sequence level, covarion-like evolution at a site manifests as conservation of nucleotide or amino acid states among some homologs where the states are not conserved in other homologs (or groups of homologs). Covarion-like evolution has been shown to relate to changes in functions at sites in different clades, and, if ignored, can adversely affect the accuracy of phylogenetic inference.


PROCOV (protein covarion analysis) is a software tool that implements a number of previously proposed covarion models of protein evolution for phylogenetic inference in a maximum likelihood framework. Several algorithmic and implementation improvements in this tool over previous versions make computationally expensive tree searches with covarion models more efficient and analyses of large phylogenomic data sets tractable. PROCOV can be used to identify covarion sites by comparing the site likelihoods under the covarion process to the corresponding site likelihoods under a rates-across-sites (RAS) process. Those sites with the greatest log-likelihood difference between a 'covarion' and an RAS process were found to be of functional or structural significance in a dataset of bacterial and eukaryotic elongation factors.


Covarion models implemented in PROCOV may be especially useful for phylogenetic estimation when ancient divergences between sequences have occurred and rates of evolution at sites are likely to have changed over the tree. It can also be used to study lineage-specific functional shifts in protein families that result in changes in the patterns of site variability among subtrees.