Maximum likelihood on four taxa phylogenetic trees: Analytic solutions

Benny Chor, Amit Khetan, Sagi Snir

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Maximum likelihood (ML) is increasingly used as an optimally criterion for selecting evolutionary trees (Felsenstein, 1981), but finding the global optimum is a hard computational task. Because no general analytic solution is known, numeric techniques such as hill climbing or expectation maximization (EM), are used in order to find optimal parameters for a given tree. So far, analytic solutions were derived only for the simplest model - three taxa, two state characters, under a molecular clock (MC). Quoting Ziheng Yang (2000), who initiated the analytic approach, "this seems to be the simplest case, but has many of the conceptual and statistical complexities involved in phylogenetic estimation". In this work, we give analytic solutions for four taxa, two state characters under a molecular clock. The change from three to four taxa incurs a major increase in the complexity of the underlying algebraic system, and requires novel techniques and approaches. We start by presenting the general maximum likelihood problem on phylogenetic trees as a constrained optimization problem, and the resulting system of polynomial equations. In full generality, it is infeasible to solve this system, therefore specialized tools for the MC case are developed. Four taxa rooted trees have two topologies - the fork (two subtrees with two leaves each) and the comb (one subtree with three leaves, the other with a single leaf). We combine the ultrametric properties of MC trees with the Hadamard conjugation (Hendy and Penny, 1993) to derive a number of topology dependent identities. Employing these identities, we substantially simplify the system of polynomial equations. We finally use tools from algebraic geometry (e.g. Gröbner bases, ideal saturation, resultants) and employ symbolic algebra software to obtain closed form analytic solutions (expressed parametrically in the input data) for the fork topology, and analytic solutions for the comb. We show that in contrast to the fork, the comb has no closed form solutions (expressed by radicals in the input data). In general, four taxa trees can have multiple ML points (Steel, 1994, Chor et. al., 2001). In contrast, we can now prove that under the MC assumption, both the fork and the comb topologies have a unique (local and global) ML point.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
StatePublished - 2003
Externally publishedYes
EventSeventh Annual International Conference on Research in Computational Molecular Biology - Berlin, Germany
Duration: 10 Apr 200313 Apr 2003


ConferenceSeventh Annual International Conference on Research in Computational Molecular Biology


  • 2-state model
  • Constrained optimization
  • Groebner bases
  • Hadamard conjugation
  • Maximum likelihood
  • Molecular clock
  • Phylogenetic trees
  • Saturation
  • Symbolic algebra

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Computer Science
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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