Background. Multiple studies have demonstrated that partitioning of molecular datasets is important in model-based phylogenetic analyses. Commonly, partitioning is done a priori based on some known properties of sequence evolution, e.g. differences in rate of evolution among codon positions of a protein-coding gene. Here we propose a new method for data partitioning based on relative evolutionary rates of the sites in the alignment of the dataset being analysed. The rates are inferred using the previously published Tree Independent Generation of Evolutionary Rates (TIGER), and the partitioning is conducted using our novel python script RatePartitions. We applied this method to eight published multi-locus phylogenetic datasets, representing different taxonomic ranks within the insect order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).
Methods. We used TIGER to generate relative evolutionary rates for all sites in the alignments. Then, using RatePartitions, we partitioned the data into bins based on their relative evolutionary rate. RatePartitions applies a simple formula that ensures a distribution of sites into partitions following the distribution of rates of the characters from the full dataset. This ensures that the invariable sites are placed in a partition with slowly evolving sites, avoiding the pitfalls of previously used methods, such as k-means. Different partitioning strategies were evaluated using BIC scores as calculated by PartitionFinder.
Results. In all eight datasets, partitioning using TIGER and RatePartitions was significantly better as measured by the BIC scores than other partitioning strategies, such as the commonly used partitioning by gene and codon position.
Discussion. We developed a new method of partitioning phylogenetic datasets without using any prior knowledge (e.g. DNA sequence evolution). This method is entirely based on the properties of the data being analysed and can be applied to DNA sequences (protein-coding, introns, ultra-conserved elements), protein sequences, as well as morphological characters. A likely explanation for why our method performs better than other tested partitioning strategies is that it accounts for the heterogeneity in the data to a much greater extent than when data are simply subdivided based on prior knowledge.