All modern approaches to molecular phylogenetics require a quantitative model for how genes evolve. Unfortunately, existing evolutionary models do not realistically represent the site-heterogeneous selection that governs actual sequence change. Attempts to remedy this problem have involved augmenting these models with a burgeoning number of free parameters. Here I demonstrate an alternative: experimental determination of a parameter-free evolutionary model via mutagenesis, functional selection, and deep sequencing. Using this strategy, I create an evolutionary model for influenza nucleoprotein that describes the gene phylogeny far better than existing models with dozens or even hundreds of free parameters. Emerging high-throughput experimental strategies such as the one employed here provide fundamentally new information that has the potential to transform the sensitivity of phylogenetic and genetic analyses.
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