Bayes Factors Unmask Highly Variable Information Content, Bias, and Extreme Influence in Phylogenomic Analyses

Syst Biol. 2017 Jul 1;66(4):517-530. doi: 10.1093/sysbio/syw101.


As the application of genomic data in phylogenetics has become routine, a number of cases have arisen where alternative data sets strongly support conflicting conclusions. This sensitivity to analytical decisions has prevented firm resolution of some of the most recalcitrant nodes in the tree of life. To better understand the causes and nature of this sensitivity, we analyzed several phylogenomic data sets using an alternative measure of topological support (the Bayes factor) that both demonstrates and averts several limitations of more frequently employed support measures (such as Markov chain Monte Carlo estimates of posterior probabilities). Bayes factors reveal important, previously hidden, differences across six "phylogenomic" data sets collected to resolve the phylogenetic placement of turtles within Amniota. These data sets vary substantially in their support for well-established amniote relationships, particularly in the proportion of genes that contain extreme amounts of information as well as the proportion that strongly reject these uncontroversial relationships. All six data sets contain little information to resolve the phylogenetic placement of turtles relative to other amniotes. Bayes factors also reveal that a very small number of extremely influential genes (less than 1% of genes in a data set) can fundamentally change significant phylogenetic conclusions. In one example, these genes are shown to contain previously unrecognized paralogs. This study demonstrates both that the resolution of difficult phylogenomic problems remains sensitive to seemingly minor analysis details and that Bayes factors are a valuable tool for identifying and solving these challenges.

Keywords: Expressed sequence tags; negative constraints; ortholog; posterior probability; ultraconserved elements.

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Bias
  • Classification / methods*
  • Genome
  • Markov Chains
  • Models, Statistical
  • Phylogeny*

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.8gm85