A genetic algorithm for maximum-likelihood phylogeny inference using nucleotide sequence data.

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Phylogeny reconstruction is a difficult computational problem, because the number of possible solutions increases with the number of included taxa. For example, for only 14 taxa, there are more than seven trillion possible unrooted phylogenetic trees. For this reason, phylogenetic inference methods commonly use clustering algorithms (e.g., the neighbor-joining method) or heuristic search strategies to minimize the amount of time spent evaluating nonoptimal trees. Even heuristic searches can be painfully slow, especially when computationally intensive optimality criteria such as maximum likelihood are used. I describe here a different approach to heuristic searching (using a genetic algorithm) that can tremendously reduce the time required for maximum-likelihood phylogenetic inference, especially for data sets involving large numbers of taxa. Genetic algorithms are simulations of natural selection in which individuals are encoded solutions to the problem of interest. Here, labeled phylogenetic trees are the individuals, and differential reproduction is effected by allowing the number of offspring produced by each individual to be proportional to that individual's rank likelihood score. Natural selection increases the average likelihood in the evolving population of phylogenetic trees, and the genetic algorithm is allowed to proceed until the likelihood of the best individual ceases to improve over time. An example is presented involving rbcL sequence data for 55 taxa of green plants. The genetic algorithm described here required only 6% of the computational effort required by a conventional heuristic search using tree bisection/reconnection (TBR) branch swapping to obtain the same maximum-likelihood topology.

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