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Mol Biol Evol. 2011 Jul;28(7):2161-72. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr045. Epub 2011 Feb 10.

Approximate likelihood calculation on a phylogeny for Bayesian estimation of divergence times.

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Department of Biology, University College London, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London, United Kingdom.


The molecular clock provides a powerful way to estimate species divergence times. If information on some species divergence times is available from the fossil or geological record, it can be used to calibrate a phylogeny and estimate divergence times for all nodes in the tree. The Bayesian method provides a natural framework to incorporate different sources of information concerning divergence times, such as information in the fossil and molecular data. Current models of sequence evolution are intractable in a Bayesian setting, and Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) is used to generate the posterior distribution of divergence times and evolutionary rates. This method is computationally expensive, as it involves the repeated calculation of the likelihood function. Here, we explore the use of Taylor expansion to approximate the likelihood during MCMC iteration. The approximation is much faster than conventional likelihood calculation. However, the approximation is expected to be poor when the proposed parameters are far from the likelihood peak. We explore the use of parameter transforms (square root, logarithm, and arcsine) to improve the approximation to the likelihood curve. We found that the new methods, particularly the arcsine-based transform, provided very good approximations under relaxed clock models and also under the global clock model when the global clock is not seriously violated. The approximation is poorer for analysis under the global clock when the global clock is seriously wrong and should thus not be used. The results suggest that the approximate method may be useful for Bayesian dating analysis using large data sets.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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