The Impact of the Rate Prior on Bayesian Estimation of Divergence Times with Multiple Loci

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Abstract

Bayesian methods provide a powerful way to estimate species divergence times by combining information from molecular sequences with information from the fossil record. With the explosive increase of genomic data, divergence time estimation increasingly uses data of multiple loci (genes or site partitions). Widely used computer programs to estimate divergence times use independent and identically distributed (i.i.d.) priors on the substitution rates for different loci. The i.i.d. prior is problematic. As the number of loci (L) increases, the prior variance of the average rate across all loci goes to zero at the rate 1/L. As a consequence, the rate prior dominates posterior time estimates when many loci are analyzed, and if the rate prior is misspecified, the estimated divergence times will converge to wrong values with very narrow credibility intervals. Here we develop a new prior on the locus rates based on the Dirichlet distribution that corrects the problematic behavior of the i.i.d. prior. We use computer simulation and real data analysis to highlight the differences between the old and new priors. For a dataset for six primate species, we show that with the old i.i.d. prior, if the prior rate is too high (or too low), the estimated divergence times are too young (or too old), outside the bounds imposed by the fossil calibrations. In contrast, with the new Dirichlet prior, posterior time estimates are insensitive to the rate prior and are compatible with the fossil calibrations. We re-analyzed a phylogenomic data set of 36 mammal species and show that using many fossil calibrations can alleviate the adverse impact of a misspecified rate prior to some extent. We recommend the use of the new Dirichlet prior in Bayesian divergence time estimation. [Bayesian inference, divergence time, relaxed clock, rate prior, partition analysis.]

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