Robustness of ancestral sequence reconstruction to phylogenetic uncertainty

Mol Biol Evol. 2010 Sep;27(9):1988-99. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msq081. Epub 2010 Apr 5.


Ancestral sequence reconstruction (ASR) is widely used to formulate and test hypotheses about the sequences, functions, and structures of ancient genes. Ancestral sequences are usually inferred from an alignment of extant sequences using a maximum likelihood (ML) phylogenetic algorithm, which calculates the most likely ancestral sequence assuming a probabilistic model of sequence evolution and a specific phylogeny--typically the tree with the ML. The true phylogeny is seldom known with certainty, however. ML methods ignore this uncertainty, whereas Bayesian methods incorporate it by integrating the likelihood of each ancestral state over a distribution of possible trees. It is not known whether Bayesian approaches to phylogenetic uncertainty improve the accuracy of inferred ancestral sequences. Here, we use simulation-based experiments under both simplified and empirically derived conditions to compare the accuracy of ASR carried out using ML and Bayesian approaches. We show that incorporating phylogenetic uncertainty by integrating over topologies very rarely changes the inferred ancestral state and does not improve the accuracy of the reconstructed ancestral sequence. Ancestral state reconstructions are robust to uncertainty about the underlying tree because the conditions that produce phylogenetic uncertainty also make the ancestral state identical across plausible trees; conversely, the conditions under which different phylogenies yield different inferred ancestral states produce little or no ambiguity about the true phylogeny. Our results suggest that ML can produce accurate ASRs, even in the face of phylogenetic uncertainty. Using Bayesian integration to incorporate this uncertainty is neither necessary nor beneficial.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Phylogeny*