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Phylogenetic trees do not reliably predict feature diversity




Phylogenetic trees provide a framework for understanding the evolution of features (properties, characters or traits) of species, where closely related species share many common or similar features. This property of phylogenetic trees has practical use in applications such as bio-prospecting, where an optimal strategy exploits phylogenetic information to target closely related species to search for shared features of interest. The implicit corollary of this is that distantly related species share few features in common. This property of phylogenetic trees is thought to be useful for conservation evaluation in choosing sets of species that maximize the present utilitarian benefits of extant feature diversity (such as biologically active compounds or source systems for genetic engineering) as well as maximizing the range of evolutionary trajectories into the future.




Here, we investigate the relationship between phylogenetic trees and biological features through both simulation and meta-analysis of 223 publicly available feature matrices.


We demonstrate that phylogenetic tree distance, both in real and simulated datasets, is correlated with feature similarity only for a short relative distance along the tree, such that there is no relationship for the majority of the length of most phylogenetic trees. In other words, close relatives share more features than distant relatives but beyond a certain threshold increasingly more distant relatives are not more divergent in phenotype.

Main conclusions

Measures of phylogenetic diversity based upon maximizing phylogenetic distance may not maximize feature diversity.

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