There has been considerable interest in the problem of making maximum likelihood (ML) evolutionary trees which allow insertions and deletions. This problem is partly one of formulation: how does one define a probabilistic model for such trees which treats insertion and deletion in a biologically plausible manner? A possible answer to this question is proposed here by extending the concept of a hidden Markov model (HMM) to evolutionary trees. The model, called a tree-HMM, allows what may be loosely regarded as learnable affine-type gap penalties for alignments. These penalties are expressed in HMMs as probabilities of transitions between states. In the tree-HMM, this idea is given an evolutionary embodiment by defining trees of transitions. Just as the probability of a tree composed of ungapped sequences is computed, by Felsenstein's method, using matrices representing the probabilities of substitutions of residues along the edges of the tree, so the probabilities in a tree-HMM are computed by substitution matrices for both residues and transitions. How to define these matrices by a ML procedure using an algorithm that learns from a database of protein sequences is shown here. Given these matrices, one can define a tree-HMM likelihood for a set of sequences, assuming a particular tree topology and an alignment of the sequences to the model. If one could efficiently find the alignment which maximizes (or comes close to maximizing) this likelihood, then one could search for the optimal tree topology for the sequences. An alignment algorithm is defined here which, given a particular tree topology, is guaranteed to increase the likelihood of the model. Unfortunately, it fails to find global optima for realistic sequence sets. Thus further research is needed to turn the tree-HMM into a practical phylogenetic tool.
Alignment Hidden Markov model Maximum likelihood Phylogenetic tree Protein sequences Substitution matrices