Multiple genome alignment is an important problem in bioinformatics. An important subproblem used by many multiple alignment approaches is that of aligning two multiple alignments. Many popular alignment algorithms for DNA use the sum-of-pairs heuristic, where the score of a multiple alignment is the sum of its induced pairwise alignment scores. However, the biological meaning of the sum-of-pairs of pairs heuristic is not obvious. Additionally, many algorithms based on the sum-of-pairs heuristic are complicated and slow, compared to pairwise alignment algorithms.
An alternative approach to aligning alignments is to first infer ancestral sequences for each alignment, and then align the two ancestral sequences. In addition to being fast, this method has a clear biological basis that takes into account the evolution implied by an underlying phylogenetic tree.
In this study we explore the accuracy of aligning alignments by ancestral sequence alignment. We examine the use of both maximum likelihood and parsimony to infer ancestral sequences. Additionally, we investigate the effect on accuracy of allowing ambiguity in our ancestral sequences.
We use synthetic sequence data that we generate by simulating evolution on a phylogenetic tree. We use two different types of phylogenetic trees: trees with a period of rapid growth followed by a period of slow growth, and trees with a period of slow growth followed by a period of rapid growth.
We examine the alignment accuracy of four ancestral sequence reconstruction and alignment methods: parsimony, maximum likelihood, ambiguous parsimony, and ambiguous maximum likelihood. Additionally, we compare against the alignment accuracy of two sum-of-pairs algorithms: ClustalW and the heuristic of Ma, Zhang, and Wang.
We find that allowing ambiguity in ancestral sequences does not lead to better multiple alignments. Regardless of whether we use parsimony or maximum likelihood, the success of aligning ancestral sequences containing ambiguity is very sensitive to the choice of gap open cost. Surprisingly, we find that using maximum likelihood to infer ancestral sequences results in less accurate alignments than when using parsimony to infer ancestral sequences. Finally, we find that the sum-of-pairs methods produce better alignments than all of the ancestral alignment methods.