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Mol Biol Evol. 1994 Mar;11(2):316-24.

Comparison of models for nucleotide substitution used in maximum-likelihood phylogenetic estimation.

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  • 1Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Using real sequence data, we evaluate the adequacy of assumptions made in evolutionary models of nucleotide substitution and the effects that these assumptions have on estimation of evolutionary trees. Two aspects of the assumptions are evaluated. The first concerns the pattern of nucleotide substitution, including equilibrium base frequencies and the transition/transversion-rate ratio. The second concerns the variation of substitution rates over sites. The maximum-likelihood estimate of tree topology appears quite robust to both these aspects of the assumptions of the models, but evaluation of the reliability of the estimated tree by using simpler, less realistic models can be misleading. Branch lengths are underestimated when simpler models of substitution are used, but the underestimation caused by ignoring rate variation over nucleotide sites is much more serious. The goodness of fit of a model is reduced by ignoring spatial rate variation, but unrealistic assumptions about the pattern of nucleotide substitution can lead to an extraordinary reduction in the likelihood. It seems that evolutionary biologists can obtain accurate estimates of certain evolutionary parameters even with an incorrect phylogeny, while systematists cannot get the right tree with confidence even when a realistic, and more complex, model of evolution is assumed.

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