Background: While Expressed Sequence Tags (ESTs) have proven a viable and efficient way to sample genomes, particularly those for which whole-genome sequencing is impractical, phylogenetic analysis using ESTs remains difficult. Sequencing errors and orthology determination are the major problems when using ESTs as a source of characters for systematics. Here we develop methods to incorporate EST sequence information in a simultaneous analysis framework to address controversial phylogenetic questions regarding the relationships among the major groups of seed plants. We use an automated, phylogenetically derived approach to orthology determination called OrthologID generate a phylogeny based on 43 process partitions, many of which are derived from ESTs, and examine several measures of support to assess the utility of EST data for phylogenies.
Results: A maximum parsimony (MP) analysis resulted in a single tree with relatively high support at all nodes in the tree despite rampant conflict among trees generated from the separate analysis of individual partitions. In a comparison of broader-scale groupings based on cellular compartment (ie: chloroplast, mitochondrial or nuclear) or function, only the nuclear partition tree (based largely on EST data) was found to be topologically identical to the tree based on the simultaneous analysis of all data. Despite topological conflict among the broader-scale groupings examined, only the tree based on morphological data showed statistically significant differences.
Conclusion: Based on the amount of character support contributed by EST data which make up a majority of the nuclear data set, and the lack of conflict of the nuclear data set with the simultaneous analysis tree, we conclude that the inclusion of EST data does provide a viable and efficient approach to address phylogenetic questions within a parsimony framework on a genomic scale, if problems of orthology determination and potential sequencing errors can be overcome. In addition, approaches that examine conflict and support in a simultaneous analysis framework allow for a more precise understanding of the evolutionary history of individual process partitions and may be a novel way to understand functional aspects of different kinds of cellular classes of gene products.