Using confidence set heuristics during topology search improves the robustness of phylogenetic inference

J Mol Evol. 2007 Jan;64(1):80-9. doi: 10.1007/s00239-006-0072-4. Epub 2006 Dec 9.


We examine the impact of likelihood surface characteristics on phylogenetic inference. Amino acid data sets simulated from topologies with branch length features chosen to represent varying degrees of difficulty for likelihood maximization are analyzed. We present situations where the tree found to achieve the global maximum in likelihood is often not equal to the true tree. We use the program covSEARCH to demonstrate how the use of adaptively sized pools of candidate trees that are updated using confidence tests results in solution sets that are highly likely to contain the true tree. This approach requires more computation than traditional maximum likelihood methods, hence covSEARCH is best suited to small to medium-sized alignments or large alignments with some constrained nodes. The majority rule consensus tree computed from the confidence sets also proves to be different from the generating topology. Although low phylogenetic signal in the input alignment can result in large confidence sets of trees, some biological information can still be obtained based on nodes that exhibit high support within the confidence set. Two real data examples are analyzed: mammal mitochondrial proteins and a small tubulin alignment. We conclude that the technique of confidence set optimization can significantly improve the robustness of phylogenetic inference at a reasonable computational cost. Additionally, when either very short internal branches or very long terminal branches are present, confident resolution of specific bipartitions or subtrees, rather than whole-tree phylogenies, may be the most realistic goal for phylogenetic methods.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms*
  • Ascomycota / genetics
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / genetics
  • Models, Biological*
  • Phylogeny*
  • Sequence Alignment / methods
  • Tubulin


  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • Tubulin