Likelihood-based tree reconstruction on a concatenation of alignments can be positively misleading

Sebastien Roch, Mike Steel

(Submitted on 6 Sep 2014)

The reconstruction of a species tree from genomic data faces a double hurdle. First, the (gene) tree describing the evolution of each gene may differ from the species tree, for instance, due to incomplete lineage sorting. Second, the aligned genetic sequences at the leaves of each gene tree provide merely an imperfect estimate of the topology of the gene tree. In this note, we demonstrate formally that a basic statistical problem arises if one tries to avoid accounting for these two processes and analyses the genetic data directly via a concatenation approach. More precisely, we show that, under the multi-species coalescent with a standard site substitution model, maximum likelihood estimation on sequence data that has been concatenated across genes and performed under the incorrect assumption that all sites have evolved independently and identically on a fixed tree is a statistically inconsistent estimator of the species tree. Our results provide a formal justification of simulation results described of Kubatko and Degnan (2007) and others, and complements recent theoretical results by DeGorgio and Degnan (2010) and Chifman and Kubtako (2014).