Advances in Time Estimation Methods for Molecular Data

Mol Biol Evol. 2016 Apr;33(4):863-9. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msw026. Epub 2016 Feb 16.


Molecular dating has become central to placing a temporal dimension on the tree of life. Methods for estimating divergence times have been developed for over 50 years, beginning with the proposal of molecular clock in 1962. We categorize the chronological development of these methods into four generations based on the timing of their origin. In the first generation approaches (1960s-1980s), a strict molecular clock was assumed to date divergences. In the second generation approaches (1990s), the equality of evolutionary rates between species was first tested and then a strict molecular clock applied to estimate divergence times. The third generation approaches (since ∼2000) account for differences in evolutionary rates across the tree by using a statistical model, obviating the need to assume a clock or to test the equality of evolutionary rates among species. Bayesian methods in the third generation require a specific or uniform prior on the speciation-process and enable the inclusion of uncertainty in clock calibrations. The fourth generation approaches (since 2012) allow rates to vary from branch to branch, but do not need prior selection of a statistical model to describe the rate variation or the specification of speciation model. With high accuracy, comparable to Bayesian approaches, and speeds that are orders of magnitude faster, fourth generation methods are able to produce reliable timetrees of thousands of species using genome scale data. We found that early time estimates from second generation studies are similar to those of third and fourth generation studies, indicating that methodological advances have not fundamentally altered the timetree of life, but rather have facilitated time estimation by enabling the inclusion of more species. Nonetheless, we feel an urgent need for testing the accuracy and precision of third and fourth generation methods, including their robustness to misspecification of priors in the analysis of large phylogenies and data sets.

Keywords: comparative genomics; dating.; molecular clock.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Fossils
  • Genetic Speciation*
  • Genome
  • Phylogeny*
  • Time