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Mol Biol Evol. 2011 Dec;28(12):3355-65. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr170. Epub 2011 Jun 24.

Purifying selection can obscure the ancient age of viral lineages.

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Department of Pathology, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA.


Statistical methods for molecular dating of viral origins have been used extensively to infer the time of most common recent ancestor for many rapidly evolving pathogens. However, there are a number of cases, in which epidemiological, historical, or genomic evidence suggests much older viral origins than those obtained via molecular dating. We demonstrate how pervasive purifying selection can mask the ancient origins of recently sampled pathogens, in part due to the inability of nucleotide-based substitution models to properly account for complex patterns of spatial and temporal variability in selective pressures. We use codon-based substitution models to infer the length of branches in viral phylogenies; these models produce estimates that are often considerably longer than those obtained with traditional nucleotide-based substitution models. Correcting the apparent underestimation of branch lengths suggests substantially older origins for measles, Ebola, and avian influenza viruses. This work helps to reconcile some of the inconsistencies between molecular dating and other types of evidence concerning the age of viral lineages.

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