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PLoS One. 2013 Nov 1;8(11):e78122. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078122. eCollection 2013.

Mapping the shapes of phylogenetic trees from human and zoonotic RNA viruses.

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British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada ; Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


A phylogeny is a tree-based model of common ancestry that is an indispensable tool for studying biological variation. Phylogenies play a special role in the study of rapidly evolving populations such as viruses, where the proliferation of lineages is constantly being shaped by the mode of virus transmission, by adaptation to immune systems, and by patterns of human migration and contact. These processes may leave an imprint on the shapes of virus phylogenies that can be extracted for comparative study; however, tree shapes are intrinsically difficult to quantify. Here we present a comprehensive study of phylogenies reconstructed from 38 different RNA viruses from 12 taxonomic families that are associated with human pathologies. To accomplish this, we have developed a new procedure for studying phylogenetic tree shapes based on the 'kernel trick', a technique that maps complex objects into a statistically convenient space. We show that our kernel method outperforms nine different tree balance statistics at correctly classifying phylogenies that were simulated under different evolutionary scenarios. Using the kernel method, we observe patterns in the distribution of RNA virus phylogenies in this space that reflect modes of transmission and pathogenesis. For example, viruses that can establish persistent chronic infections (such as HIV and hepatitis C virus) form a distinct cluster. Although the visibly 'star-like' shape characteristic of trees from these viruses has been well-documented, we show that established methods for quantifying tree shape fail to distinguish these trees from those of other viruses. The kernel approach presented here potentially represents an important new tool for characterizing the evolution and epidemiology of RNA viruses.

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