Parametric and non-parametric masking of randomness in sequence alignments can be improved and leads to better resolved trees

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Methods of alignment masking, which refers to the technique of excluding alignment blocks prior to tree reconstructions, have been successful in improving the signal-to-noise ratio in sequence alignments. However, the lack of formally well defined methods to identify randomness in sequence alignments has prevented a routine application of alignment masking. In this study, we compared the effects on tree reconstructions of the most commonly used profiling method (GBLOCKS) which uses a predefined set of rules in combination with alignment masking, with a new profiling approach (ALISCORE) based on Monte Carlo resampling within a sliding window, using different data sets and alignment methods. While the GBLOCKS approach excludes variable sections above a certain threshold which choice is left arbitrary, the ALISCORE algorithm is free of a priori rating of parameter space and therefore more objective. ALISCORE was successfully extended to amino acids using a proportional model and empirical substitution matrices to score randomness in multiple sequence alignments. A complex bootstrap resampling leads to an even distribution of scores of randomly similar sequences to assess randomness of the observed sequence similarity. Testing performance on real data, both masking methods, GBLOCKS and ALISCORE, helped to improve tree resolution. The sliding window approach was less sensitive to different alignments of identical data sets and performed equally well on all data sets. Concurrently, ALISCORE is capable of dealing with different substitution patterns and heterogeneous base composition. ALISCORE and the most relaxed GBLOCKS gap parameter setting performed best on all data sets. Correspondingly, Neighbor-Net analyses showed the most decrease in conflict. Alignment masking improves signal-to-noise ratio in multiple sequence alignments prior to phylogenetic reconstruction. Given the robust performance of alignment profiling, alignment masking should routinely be used to improve tree reconstructions. Parametric methods of alignment profiling can be easily extended to more complex likelihood based models of sequence evolution which opens the possibility of further improvements.




Kück, P., Meusemann, K., Dambach, J., Thormann, B., von Reumont, B. M., Wägele, J. W., & Misof, B. (2010). Parametric and non-parametric masking of randomness in sequence alignments can be improved and leads to better resolved trees. Frontiers in Zoology, 7.

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