AJ Aberer, A Stamatakis and F Ronquist,
Systematic biology, Jul 30 2015
Sampling tree space is the most challenging aspect of Bayesian phylogenetic inference. The sheer number of alternative topologies is problematic by itself. In addition, the complex dependency between branch lengths and topology increases the difficulty of moving efficiently among topologies. Current tree proposals are fast but sample new trees using primitive transformations or re-mappings of old branch lengths. This reduces acceptance rates and presumably slows down convergence and mixing. Here, we explore branch proposals that do not rely on old branch lengths but instead are based on approximations of the conditional posterior. Using a diverse set of empirical datasets, we show that most conditional branch posteriors can be accurately approximated via a Γ distribution. We empirically determine the relationship between the logarithmic conditional posterior density, its derivatives, and the characteristics of the branch posterior. We use these relationships to derive an independence sampler for proposing branches with an acceptance ratio of ~90% on most datasets. This proposal samples branches between 2× and 3× more efficiently than traditional proposals with respect to the effective sample size per unit of runtime. We also compare the performance of standard topology proposals with hybrid proposals that use the new independence sampler to update those branches that are most affected by the topological change. Our results show that hybrid proposals can sometimes noticeably decrease the number of generations necessary for topological convergence. Inconsistent performance gains indicate that branch updates are not the limiting factor in improving topological convergence for the currently employed set of proposals. However, our independence sampler might be essential for the construction of novel tree proposals that apply more radical topology changes.