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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Bayesian random local clocks, or one rate to rule them all

Alexei J Drummond12 and Marc A Suchard34

Author affiliations

1 Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand

2 Computational Evolution Group, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand

3 Departments of Biomathematics and Human Genetics, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA

4 Department of Biostatistics, UCLA School of Public Health, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA

Citation and License

BMC Biology 2010, 8:114  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-114

Published: 31 August 2010



Relaxed molecular clock models allow divergence time dating and "relaxed phylogenetic" inference, in which a time tree is estimated in the face of unequal rates across lineages. We present a new method for relaxing the assumption of a strict molecular clock using Markov chain Monte Carlo to implement Bayesian modeling averaging over random local molecular clocks. The new method approaches the problem of rate variation among lineages by proposing a series of local molecular clocks, each extending over a subregion of the full phylogeny. Each branch in a phylogeny (subtending a clade) is a possible location for a change of rate from one local clock to a new one. Thus, including both the global molecular clock and the unconstrained model results, there are a total of 22n-2 possible rate models available for averaging with 1, 2, ..., 2n - 2 different rate categories.


We propose an efficient method to sample this model space while simultaneously estimating the phylogeny. The new method conveniently allows a direct test of the strict molecular clock, in which one rate rules them all, against a large array of alternative local molecular clock models. We illustrate the method's utility on three example data sets involving mammal, primate and influenza evolution. Finally, we explore methods to visualize the complex posterior distribution that results from inference under such models.


The examples suggest that large sequence datasets may only require a small number of local molecular clocks to reconcile their branch lengths with a time scale. All of the analyses described here are implemented in the open access software package BEAST 1.5.4 ( webcite).