We have developed an alignment-free method that calculates phylogenetic distances using a maximum-likelihood approach for a model of sequence change on patterns that are discovered in unaligned sequences. To evaluate the phylogenetic accuracy of our method, and to conduct a comprehensive comparison of existing alignment-free methods (freely available as Python package decaf + py at http://www.bioinformatics.org.au), we have created a data set of reference trees covering a wide range of phylogenetic distances. Amino acid sequences were evolved along the trees and input to the tested methods; from their calculated distances we infered trees whose topologies we compared to the reference trees.We find our pattern-based method statistically superior to all other tested alignment-free methods. We also demonstrate the general advantage of alignment-free methods over an approach based on automated alignments when sequences violate the assumption of collinearity. Similarly, we compare methods on empirical data from an existing alignment benchmark set that we used to derive reference distances and trees. Our pattern-based approach yields distances that show a linear relationship to reference distances over a substantially longer range than other alignment-free methods. The pattern-based approach outperforms alignment-free methods and its phylogenetic accuracy is statistically indistinguishable from alignment-based distances.
Keywords: alignment-free methods; distance estimation; pattern discovery; phylogenetics.