Phylogenomics, the use of large datasets to examine phylogeny, has revolutionized the study of evolutionary relationships. However, genome-scale data have not been able to resolve all relationships in the tree of life; this could reflect, at least in part, the poor-fit of the models used to analyze heterogeneous datasets. Some of the heterogeneity may reflect the different patterns of selection on proteins based on their structures. To test that hypothesis, we developed a pipeline to divide phylogenomic protein datasets into subsets based on secondary structure and relative solvent accessibility. We then tested whether amino acids in different structural environments had distinct signals for the topology of the deepest branches in the metazoan tree. We focused on a dataset that appeared to have a mixture of signals and we found that the most striking difference in phylogenetic signal reflected relative solvent accessibility. Analyses of exposed sites (residues located on the surface of proteins) yielded a tree that placed ctenophores sister to all other animals whereas sites buried inside proteins yielded a tree with a sponge+ctenophore clade. These differences in phylogenetic signal were not ameliorated when we conducted analyses using a set of maximum-likelihood profile mixture models. These models are very similar to the Bayesian CAT model, which has been used in many analyses of deep metazoan phylogeny. In contrast, analyses conducted after recoding amino acids to limit the impact of deviations from compositional stationarity increased the congruence in the estimates of phylogeny for exposed and buried sites; after recoding amino acid trees estimated using the exposed and buried site both supported placement of ctenophores sister to all other animals. Although the central conclusion of our analyses is that sites in different structural environments yield distinct trees when analyzed using models of protein evolution, our amino acid recoding analyses also have implications for metazoan evolution. Specifically, our results add to the evidence that ctenophores are the sister group of all other animals and they further suggest that the placozoa+cnidaria clade found in some other studies deserves more attention. Taken as a whole, these results provide striking evidence that it is necessary to achieve a better understanding of the constraints due to protein structure to improve phylogenetic estimation.
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