Erasing errors due to alignment ambiguity when estimating positive selection

Mol Biol Evol. 2014 Aug;31(8):1979-93. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msu174. Epub 2014 May 27.


Current estimates of diversifying positive selection rely on first having an accurate multiple sequence alignment. Simulation studies have shown that under biologically plausible conditions, relying on a single estimate of the alignment from commonly used alignment software can lead to unacceptably high false-positive rates in detecting diversifying positive selection. We present a novel statistical method that eliminates excess false positives resulting from alignment error by jointly estimating the degree of positive selection and the alignment under an evolutionary model. Our model treats both substitutions and insertions/deletions as sequence changes on a tree and allows site heterogeneity in the substitution process. We conduct inference starting from unaligned sequence data by integrating over all alignments. This approach naturally accounts for ambiguous alignments without requiring ambiguously aligned sites to be identified and removed prior to analysis. We take a Bayesian approach and conduct inference using Markov chain Monte Carlo to integrate over all alignments on a fixed evolutionary tree topology. We introduce a Bayesian version of the branch-site test and assess the evidence for positive selection using Bayes factors. We compare two models of differing dimensionality using a simple alternative to reversible-jump methods. We also describe a more accurate method of estimating the Bayes factor using Rao-Blackwellization. We then show using simulated data that jointly estimating the alignment and the presence of positive selection solves the problem with excessive false positives from erroneous alignments and has nearly the same power to detect positive selection as when the true alignment is known. We also show that samples taken from the posterior alignment distribution using the software BAli-Phy have substantially lower alignment error compared with MUSCLE, MAFFT, PRANK, and FSA alignments.

Keywords: Bayes factor; codon models; false-positive rate; insertion/deletion; positive selection; sequence alignment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Markov Chains
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Mutation
  • Phylogeny
  • Selection, Genetic*