Indexed on: 25 Apr '08Published on: 25 Apr '08Published in: Systematic biology
We investigate the performance of phylogenetic mixture models in reducing a well-known and pervasive artifact of phylogenetic inference known as the node-density effect, comparing them to partitioned analyses of the same data. The node-density effect refers to the tendency for the amount of evolutionary change in longer branches of phylogenies to be underestimated compared to that in regions of the tree where there are more nodes and thus branches are typically shorter. Mixture models allow more than one model of sequence evolution to describe the sites in an alignment without prior knowledge of the evolutionary processes that characterize the data or how they correspond to different sites. If multiple evolutionary patterns are common in sequence evolution, mixture models may be capable of reducing node-density effects by characterizing the evolutionary processes more accurately. In gene-sequence alignments simulated to have heterogeneous patterns of evolution, we find that mixture models can reduce node-density effects to negligible levels or remove them altogether, performing as well as partitioned analyses based on the known simulated patterns. The mixture models achieve this without knowledge of the patterns that generated the data and even in some cases without specifying the full or true model of sequence evolution known to underlie the data. The latter result is especially important in real applications, as the true model of evolution is seldom known. We find the same patterns of results for two real data sets with evidence of complex patterns of sequence evolution: mixture models substantially reduced node-density effects and returned better likelihoods compared to partitioning models specifically fitted to these data. We suggest that the presence of more than one pattern of evolution in the data is a common source of error in phylogenetic inference and that mixture models can often detect these patterns even without prior knowledge of their presence in the data. Routine use of mixture models alongside other approaches to phylogenetic inference may often reveal hidden or unexpected patterns of sequence evolution and can improve phylogenetic inference.