Maximum-Likelihood Model Averaging To Profile Clustering of Site Types across Discrete Linear Sequences

A major analytical challenge in computational biology is the detection and description of clusters of specified site types, such as polymorphic or substituted sites within DNA or protein sequences. Progress has been stymied by a lack of suitable methods to detect clusters and to estimate the extent of clustering in discrete linear sequences, particularly when there is no a priori specification of cluster size or cluster count. Here we derive and demonstrate a maximum likelihood method of hierarchical clustering. Our method incorporates a tripartite divide-and-conquer strategy that models sequence heterogeneity, delineates clusters, and yields a profile of the level of clustering associated with each site. The clustering model may be evaluated via model selection using the Akaike Information Criterion, the corrected Akaike Information Criterion, and the Bayesian Information Criterion. Furthermore, model averaging using weighted model likelihoods may be applied to incorporate model uncertainty into the profile of heterogeneity across sites. We evaluated our method by examining its performance on a number of simulated datasets as well as on empirical polymorphism data from diverse natural alleles of the Drosophila alcohol dehydrogenase gene. Our method yielded greater power for the detection of clustered sites across a breadth of parameter ranges, and achieved better accuracy and precision of estimation of clusters, than did the existing empirical cumulative distribution function statistics.

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