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Mol Biol Evol. 2007 Jun;24(6):1380-3. Epub 2007 Mar 25.

Heads or tails: a simple reliability check for multiple sequence alignments.

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  • 1Department of Biology & Biochemistry, University of Houston, TX, USA.


The question of multiple sequence alignment quality has received much attention from developers of alignment methods. Less forthcoming, however, are practical measures for addressing alignment quality issues in real life settings. Here, we present a simple methodology to help identify and quantify the uncertainties in multiple sequence alignments and their effects on subsequent analyses. The proposed methodology is based upon the a priori expectation that sequence alignment results should be independent of the orientation of the input sequences. Thus, for totally unambiguous cases, reversing residue order prior to alignment should yield an exact reversed alignment of that obtained by using the unreversed sequences. Such "ideal" alignments, however, are the exception in real life settings, and the two alignments, which we term the heads and tails alignments, are usually different to a greater or lesser degree. The degree of agreement or discrepancy between these two alignments may be used to assess the reliability of the sequence alignment. Furthermore, any alignment dependent sequence analysis protocol can be carried out separately for each of the two alignments, and the two sets of results may be compared with each other, providing us with valuable information regarding the robustness of the whole analytical process. The heads-or-tails (HoT) methodology can be easily implemented for any choice of alignment method and for any subsequent analytical protocol. We demonstrate the utility of HoT for phylogenetic reconstruction for the case of 130 sequences belonging to the chemoreceptor superfamily in Drosophila melanogaster, and by analysis of the BaliBASE alignment database. Surprisingly, Neighbor-Joining methods of phylogenetic reconstruction turned out to be less affected by alignment errors than maximum likelihood and Bayesian methods.

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