Modelteller: Model selection for optimal phylogenetic reconstruction using machine learning

Shiran Abadi, Oren Avram, Saharon Rosset, Tal Pupko, Itay Mayrose*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Statistical criteria have long been the standard for selecting the best model for phylogenetic reconstruction and downstream statistical inference. Although model selection is regarded as a fundamental step in phylogenetics, existing methods for this task consume computational resources for long processing time, they are not always feasible, and sometimes depend on preliminary assumptions which do not hold for sequence data. Moreover, although these methods are dedicated to revealing the processes that underlie the sequence data, they do not always produce the most accurate trees. Notably, phylogeny reconstruction consists of two related tasks, topology reconstruction and branch-length estimation. It was previously shown that in many cases the most complex model, GTR+I+G, leads to topologies that are as accurate as using existing model selection criteria, but overestimates branch lengths. Here, we present ModelTeller, a computational methodology for phylogenetic model selection, devised within the machine-learning framework, optimized to predict the most accurate nucleotide substitution model for branch-length estimation. We demonstrate that ModelTeller leads to more accurate branch-length inference than current model selection criteria on data sets simulated under realistic processes. ModelTeller relies on a readily implemented machine-learning model and thus the prediction according to features extracted from the sequence data results in a substantial decrease in running time compared with existing strategies. By harnessing the machine-learning framework, we distinguish between features that mostly contribute to branch-length optimization, concerning the extent of sequence divergence, and features that are related to estimates of the model parameters that are important for the selection made by current criteria.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3338-3352
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number11
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2020


  • Machine learning
  • Model selection
  • Nucleotide substitution models
  • Phylogenetic reconstruction
  • Random Forest for regression
  • Simulations


Dive into the research topics of 'Modelteller: Model selection for optimal phylogenetic reconstruction using machine learning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this