Potential for bias and low precision in molecular divergence time estimation of the Canopy of Life: An example from aquatic bird families

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Uncertainty in divergence time estimation is frequently studied from many angles but rarely from the perspective of phylogenetic node age. If appropriate molecular models and fossil priors are used, a multi-locus, partitioned analysis is expected to equally minimize error in accuracy and precision across all nodes of a given phylogeny. In contrast, if available models fail to completely account for rate heterogeneity, substitution saturation and incompleteness of the fossil record, uncertainty in divergence time estimation may increase with node age. While many studies have stressed this concern with regard to deep nodes in the Tree of Life, the inference that molecular divergence time estimation of shallow nodes is less sensitive to erroneous model choice has not been tested explicitly in a Bayesian framework. Because of available divergence time estimation methods that permit fossil priors across any phylogenetic node and the present increase in efficient, cheap collection of species-level genomic data, insight is needed into the performance of divergence time estimation of shallow (<10 MY) nodes. Here, we performed multiple sensitivity analyses in a multi-locus data set of aquatic birds with six fossil constraints. Comparison across divergence time analyses that varied taxon and locus sampling, number and position of fossil constraint and shape of prior distribution showed various insights. Deviation from node ages obtained from a reference analysis was generally highest for the shallowest nodes but determined more by temporal placement than number of fossil constraints. Calibration with only the shallowest nodes significantly underestimated the aquatic bird fossil record, indicating the presence of saturation. Although joint calibration with all six priors yielded ages most consistent with the fossil record, ages of shallow nodes were overestimated. This bias was found in both mtDNA and nDNA regions. Thus, divergence time estimation of shallow nodes may suffer from bias and low precision, even when appropriate fossil priors and best available substitution models are chosen. Much care must be taken to address the possible ramifications of substitution saturation across the entire Tree of Life.




van Tuinen, M., & Torres, C. R. (2015). Potential for bias and low precision in molecular divergence time estimation of the Canopy of Life: An example from aquatic bird families. Frontiers in Genetics, 6(JUN). https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2015.00203

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