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Open Access Research

Phylogenetic support values are not necessarily informative: the case of the Serialia hypothesis (a mollusk phylogeny)

J Wolfgang Wägele1*, Harald Letsch1, Annette Klussmann-Kolb2, Christoph Mayer3, Bernhard Misof1 and Heike Wägele1

Author Affiliations

1 Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig, Adenauerallee 160, 53313 Bonn, Germany

2 J. W. Goethe University, Institute for Ecology, Evolution and Diversity, Siesmayerstrasse 70, D – 60054 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

3 Ruhr-University Bochum, Faculty of Biology, Universitätsstr., 44370 Bochum, Germany

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Frontiers in Zoology 2009, 6:12  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-6-12

Published: 26 June 2009

Abstract

Background

Molecular phylogenies are being published increasingly and many biologists rely on the most recent topologies. However, different phylogenetic trees often contain conflicting results and contradict significant background data. Not knowing how reliable traditional knowledge is, a crucial question concerns the quality of newly produced molecular data. The information content of DNA alignments is rarely discussed, as quality statements are mostly restricted to the statistical support of clades. Here we present a case study of a recently published mollusk phylogeny that contains surprising groupings, based on five genes and 108 species, and we apply new or rarely used tools for the analysis of the information content of alignments and for the filtering of noise (masking of random-like alignment regions, split decomposition, phylogenetic networks, quartet mapping).

Results

The data are very fragmentary and contain contaminations. We show that that signal-like patterns in the data set are conflicting and partly not distinct and that the reported strong support for a "rather surprising result" (monoplacophorans and chitons form a monophylum Serialia) does not exist at the level of primary homologies. Split-decomposition, quartet mapping and neighbornet analyses reveal conflicting nucleotide patterns and lack of distinct phylogenetic signal for the deeper phylogeny of mollusks.

Conclusion

Even though currently a majority of molecular phylogenies are being justified with reference to the 'statistical' support of clades in tree topologies, this confidence seems to be unfounded. Contradictions between phylogenies based on different analyses are already a strong indication of unnoticed pitfalls. The use of tree-independent tools for exploratory analyses of data quality is highly recommended. Concerning the new mollusk phylogeny more convincing evidence is needed.