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Syst Biol. 2008 Feb;57(1):76-85. doi: 10.1080/10635150801898920.

Does choice in model selection affect maximum likelihood analysis?

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  • 1Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844-3051, USA. jripplinger@vandals.uidaho.edu


In order to have confidence in model-based phylogenetic analysis, the model of nucleotide substitution adopted must be selected in a statistically rigorous manner. Several model-selection methods are applicable to maximum likelihood (ML) analysis, including the hierarchical likelihood-ratio test (hLRT), Akaike information criterion (AIC), Bayesian information criterion (BIC), and decision theory (DT), but their performance relative to empirical data has not been investigated thoroughly. In this study, we use 250 phylogenetic data sets obtained from TreeBASE to examine the effects that choice in model selection has on ML estimation of phylogeny, with an emphasis on optimal topology, bootstrap support, and hypothesis testing. We show that the use of different methods leads to the selection of two or more models for approximately 80% of the data sets and that the AIC typically selects more complex models than alternative approaches. Although ML estimation with different best-fit models results in incongruent tree topologies approximately 50% of the time, these differences are primarily attributable to alternative resolutions of poorly supported nodes. Furthermore, topologies and bootstrap values estimated with ML using alternative statistically supported models are more similar to each other than to topologies and bootstrap values estimated with ML under the Kimura two-parameter (K2P) model or maximum parsimony (MP). In addition, Swofford-Olsen-Waddell-Hillis (SOWH) tests indicate that ML trees estimated with alternative best-fit models are usually not significantly different from each other when evaluated with the same model. However, ML trees estimated with statistically supported models are often significantly suboptimal to ML trees made with the K2P model when both are evaluated with K2P, indicating that not all models perform in an equivalent manner. Nevertheless, the use of alternative statistically supported models generally does not affect tests of monophyletic relationships under either the Shimodaira-Hasegawa (S-H) or SOWH methods. Our results suggest that although choice in model selection has a strong impact on optimal tree topology, it rarely affects evolutionary inferences drawn from the data because differences are mainly confined to poorly supported nodes. Moreover, since ML with alternative best-fit models tends to produce more similar estimates of phylogeny than ML under the K2P model or MP, the use of any statistically based model-selection method is vastly preferable to forgoing the model-selection process altogether.

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