Seeing the Trees in Your Terrace

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Science  22 Jul 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6041, pp. 411-412
DOI: 10.1126/science.1209690

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A fundamental challenge in evolutionary biology is the use of DNA or protein sequences to infer the tree of life. The advent of rapid and inexpensive sequencing technology has enabled researchers to make inferences about evolutionary relationships (phylogenies) based on many genes (loci). One approach to estimating phylogenetic trees is to concatenate, or join together, the DNA sequences for individual genes into a larger “supermatrix.” Such data sets, however, are often characterized by many missing sequences, hampering efforts to infer evolutionary connections. On page 448 of this issue, Sanderson et al. (1) provide insight into efficiently overcoming these gaps. They show that using standard methods for supermatrix analysis can produce a phylogenetic landscape that is dominated by “terraces”—sets of possible trees with identical optimality scores—and help ease the task of estimating evolutionary relatedness.