Multiple sequence alignment: A major challenge to large-scale phylogenetics

Kevin Liu, C. Randal Linder, Tandy Warnow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Over the last decade, dramatic advances have been made in developing methods for large-scale phylogeny estimation, so that it is now feasible for investigators with moderate computational resources to obtain reasonable solutions to maximum likelihood and maximum parsimony, even for datasets with a few thousand sequences. There has also been progress on developing methods for multiple sequence alignment, so that greater alignment accuracy (and subsequent improvement in phylogenetic accuracy) is now possible through automated methods. However, these methods have not been tested under conditions that reflect properties of datasets confronted by large-scale phylogenetic estimation projects. In this paper we report on a study that compares several alignment methods on a benchmark collection of nucleotide sequence datasets of up to 78,132 sequences. We show that as the number of sequences increases, the number of alignment methods that can analyze the datasets decreases. Furthermore, the most accurate alignment methods are unable to analyze the very largest datasets we studied, so that only moderately accurate alignment methods can be used on the largest datasets. As a result, alignments computed for large datasets have relatively large error rates, and maximum likelihood phylogenies computed on these alignments also have high error rates. Therefore, the estimation of highly accurate multiple sequence alignments is a major challenge for Tree of Life projects, and more generally for large-scale systematics studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberecurrents.RRN1198
JournalPLoS Currents
Issue numberNOV
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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