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A primer to molecular phylogenetic analysis in plants
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Reconstructing a tree of life by inferring evolutionary history is an important focus of evolutionary biology. Phylogenetic reconstructions also provide useful information for a range of scientific disciplines such as botany, zoology, phylogeography, archaeology and biological anthropology. Until the development of protein and DNA sequencing techniques in the 1960s and 1970s, phylogenetic reconstructions were based on fossil records and comparative morphological/physiological analyses. Since then, progress in molecular phylogenetics has compensated for some of the shortcomings of phenotype-based comparisons. Comparisons at the molecular level increase the accuracy of phylogenetic inference because there is no environmental influence on DNA/peptide sequences and evaluation of sequence similarity is not subjective. While the number of morphological/physiological characters that are sufficiently conserved for phylogenetic inference is limited, molecular data provide a large number of datapoints and enable comparisons from diverse taxa. Over the last 20 years, developments in molecular phylogenetics have greatly contributed to our understanding of plant evolutionary relationships. Regions in the plant nuclear and organellar genomes that are optimal for phylogenetic inference have been determined and recent advances in DNA sequencing techniques have enabled comparisons at the whole genome level. Sequences from the nuclear and organellar genomes of thousands of plant species are readily available in public databases, enabling researchers without access to molecular biology tools to investigate phylogenetic relationships by sequence comparisons using the appropriate nucleotide substitution models and tree building algorithms. In the present review, the statistical models and algorithms used to reconstruct phylogenetic trees are introduced and advances in the exploration and utilization of plant genomes for molecular phylogenetic analyses are discussed.