Amphioxus mitochondrial DNA, chordate phylogeny, and the limits of inference based on comparisons of sequences

Syst Biol. 1998 Mar;47(1):61-76. doi: 10.1080/106351598261030.


Analyses of both the nucleotide and amino acid sequences derived from all 13 mitochondrial protein-encoding genes (12,234 bp) of 19 metazoan species, including that of the lancelet Branchiostoma floridae ("amphioxus"), fail to yield the widely accepted phylogeny for chordates and, within chordates, for vertebrates. Given the breadth and the compelling nature of the data supporting that phylogeny, relationships supported by the mitochondrial sequence comparisons are almost certainly incorrect, despite their being supported by equally weighted parsimony, distance, and maximum-likelihood analyses. The incorrect groupings probably result in part from convergent base-compositional similarities among some of the taxa, similarities that are strong enough to overwhelm the historical signal. Comparisons among very distantly related taxa are likely to be particularly susceptible to such artifacts, because the historical signal is already greatly attenuated. Empirical results underscore the need for approaches to phylogenetic inference that go beyond simple site-by-site comparison of aligned sequences. This study and others indicate that, once a sequence sample of reasonable size has been obtained, accurate phylogenetic estimation may be better served by incorporating knowledge of molecular structures and processes into inference models and by seeking additional higher order characters embedded in those sequences, than by gathering ever larger sequence samples from the same organisms in he hope that the historical signal will eventually prevail.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Chordata, Nonvertebrate / classification
  • Chordata, Nonvertebrate / genetics*
  • Classification / methods
  • Codon / genetics
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Invertebrates / classification
  • Invertebrates / genetics
  • Mammals / classification
  • Mammals / genetics
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Vertebrates / classification
  • Vertebrates / genetics


  • Codon
  • DNA, Mitochondrial