Sub-species nomenclature systems of pathogens are increasingly based on sequence data. The use of phylogenetics to identify and differentiate between clusters of genetically similar pathogens is particularly prevalent in virology from the nomenclature of human papillomaviruses to highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5Nx viruses. These nomenclature systems rely on absolute genetic distance thresholds to define the maximum genetic divergence tolerated between viruses designated as closely related. However, the phylogenetic clustering methods used in these nomenclature systems are limited by the arbitrariness of setting intra- and inter-cluster diversity thresholds. The lack of a consensus ground truth to define well-delineated, meaningful phylogenetic subpopulations amplifies the difficulties in identifying an informative distance threshold. Consequently, phylogenetic clustering often becomes an exploratory, ad-hoc exercise. Phylogenetic Clustering by Linear Integer Programming (PhyCLIP) was developed to provide a statistically-principled phylogenetic clustering framework that negates the need for an arbitrarily-defined distance threshold. Using the pairwise patristic distance distributions of an input phylogeny, PhyCLIP parameterises the intra- and inter-cluster divergence limits as statistical bounds in an integer linear programming model which is subsequently optimised to cluster as many sequences as possible. When applied to the haemagglutinin phylogeny of HPAI H5Nx viruses, PhyCLIP was not only able to recapitulate the current WHO/OIE/FAO H5 nomenclature system but also further delineated informative higher resolution clusters that capture geographically-distinct subpopulations of viruses. PhyCLIP is pathogen-agnostic and can be generalised to a wide variety of research questions concerning the identification of biologically informative clusters in pathogen phylogenies. PhyCLIP is freely available at http://github.com/alvinxhan/PhyCLIP.
Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2019 Mar 11. pii: msz053. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msz053
Date of acceptance