Relative model selection of evolutionary substitution models can be sensitive to multiple sequence alignment uncertainty

Stephanie J. Spielman, Molly L. Miraglia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Multiple sequence alignments (MSAs) represent the fundamental unit of data inputted to most comparative sequence analyses. In phylogenetic analyses in particular, errors in MSA construction have the potential to induce further errors in downstream analyses such as phylogenetic reconstruction itself, ancestral state reconstruction, and divergence time estimation. In addition to providing phylogenetic methods with an MSA to analyze, researchers must also specify a suitable evolutionary model for the given analysis. Most commonly, researchers apply relative model selection to select a model from candidate set and then provide both the MSA and the selected model as input to subsequent analyses. While the influence of MSA errors has been explored for most stages of phylogenetics pipelines, the potential effects of MSA uncertainty on the relative model selection procedure itself have not been explored. Results: We assessed the consistency of relative model selection when presented with multiple perturbed versions of a given MSA. We find that while relative model selection is mostly robust to MSA uncertainty, in a substantial proportion of circumstances, relative model selection identifies distinct best-fitting models from different MSAs created from the same set of sequences. We find that this issue is more pervasive for nucleotide data compared to amino-acid data. However, we also find that it is challenging to predict whether relative model selection will be robust or sensitive to uncertainty in a given MSA. Conclusions: We find that that MSA uncertainty can affect virtually all steps of phylogenetic analysis pipelines to a greater extent than has previously been recognized, including relative model selection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number214
JournalBMC Ecology and Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • General Environmental Science


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