Probability Theory and Related Fields

, Volume 149, Issue 1–2, pp 149–189 | Cite as

Evolutionary trees and the Ising model on the Bethe lattice: a proof of Steel’s conjecture

  • Constantinos Daskalakis
  • Elchanan Mossel
  • Sébastien Roch
Open Access


A major task of evolutionary biology is the reconstruction of phylogenetic trees from molecular data. The evolutionary model is given by a Markov chain on a tree. Given samples from the leaves of the Markov chain, the goal is to reconstruct the leaf-labelled tree. It is well known that in order to reconstruct a tree on n leaves, sample sequences of length Ω(log n) are needed. It was conjectured by Steel that for the CFN/Ising evolutionary model, if the mutation probability on all edges of the tree is less than \({p^{\ast} = (\sqrt{2}-1)/2^{3/2}}\), then the tree can be recovered from sequences of length O(log n). The value p* is given by the transition point for the extremality of the free Gibbs measure for the Ising model on the binary tree. Steel’s conjecture was proven by the second author in the special case where the tree is “balanced.” The second author also proved that if all edges have mutation probability larger than p* then the length needed is n Ω(1). Here we show that Steel’s conjecture holds true for general trees by giving a reconstruction algorithm that recovers the tree from O(log n)-length sequences when the mutation probabilities are discretized and less than p*. Our proof and results demonstrate that extremality of the free Gibbs measure on the infinite binary tree, which has been studied before in probability, statistical physics and computer science, determines how distinguishable are Gibbs measures on finite binary trees.


Phylogenetics CFN model Ising model Phase transitions Reconstruction problem Jukes–Cantor 

Mathematics Subject Classification (2000)

Primary 60K35 92D15 Secondary 60J85 82B26 



S.R. thanks Martin Nowak and the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University where part of this work was done. E.M. and S.R. thank Mike Steel for his enthusiastic encouragement for studying the connections between the reconstruction problem and phylogenetics. We thank Satish Rao and Allan Sly for interesting discussions. We also thank the reviewers for their helpful comments. C.D. and S.R. performed this work at UC Berkeley and Microsoft Research.

Open Access

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Constantinos Daskalakis
    • 1
  • Elchanan Mossel
    • 2
    • 3
  • Sébastien Roch
    • 4
  1. 1.CSAILMITCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Statistics and Computer ScienceU.C. BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  3. 3.Weizmann Institute of ScienceRehovotIsrael
  4. 4.Department of MathematicsUCLALos AngelesUSA

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