Performance of a priori and a posteriori calibration strategies in divergence time estimation

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Relaxed molecular clock methods allow the use of genomic data to estimate divergence times across the tree of life. This is most commonly achieved in Bayesian analyses where the molecular clock is calibrated a priori through the integration of fossil information. Alternatively, fossil calibrations can be used a posteriori, to transform previously estimated relative divergence times that were inferred without considering fossil information, into absolute divergence times. However, as branch length is the product of the rate of evolution and the duration in time of the considered branch, the extent to which a posteriori-calibrated, relative divergence time methods can disambiguate time and rate, is unclear. Here, we use forward evolutionary simulations and compare a priori and a posteriori calibration strategies using different molecular clock methods and models. Specifically, we compare three Bayesian methods, the strict clock, uncorrelated clock and autocorrelated clock, and the non-Bayesian algorithm implemented in RelTime. We simulate phylogenies with multiple, independent substitution rate changes and show that correct timescales cannot be inferred without the use of calibrations. Under our simulation conditions, a posteriori calibration strategies almost invariably inferred incorrect rate changes and divergence times. The a priori integration of fossil calibrations is fundamental in these cases to improve the accuracy of the estimated divergence times. Relative divergence times and absolute timescales derived by calibrating relative timescales to geological time a posteriori, appear to be less reliable than a priori calibrated, timescales.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberevaa105
Pages (from-to)1087-1098
Number of pages12
JournalGenome Biology and Evolution
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2020


  • molecular clock
  • Bayesian
  • RelTime
  • simulation

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