Admixture, the interbreeding between previously distinct populations, is a pervasive force in evolution. The evolutionary history of populations in the presence of admixture can be modeled by augmenting phylogenetic trees with additional nodes that represent admixture events. While enabling a more faithful representation of evolutionary history, admixture graphs present formidable inferential challenges, and there is an increasing need for methods that are accurate, fully automated and computationally efficient. One key challenge arises from the size of the space of admixture graphs. Given that exhaustively evaluating all admixture graphs can be prohibitively expensive, heuristics have been developed to enable efficient search over this space. One heuristic, implemented in the popular method TreeMix, consists of adding edges to a starting tree while optimizing a suitable objective function.


Here, we present a demographic model (with one admixed population incident to a leaf) where TreeMix and any other starting-tree-based maximum likelihood heuristic using its likelihood function is guaranteed to get stuck in a local optimum and return an incorrect network topology. To address this issue, we propose a new search strategy that we term maximum likelihood network orientation (MLNO). We augment TreeMix with an exhaustive search for an MLNO, referring to this approach as OrientAGraph. In evaluations including previously published admixture graphs, OrientAGraph outperformed TreeMix on 4/8 models (there are no differences in the other cases). Overall, OrientAGraph found graphs with higher likelihood scores and topological accuracy while remaining computationally efficient. Lastly, our study reveals several directions for improving maximum likelihood admixture graph estimation.

Availability and implementation

OrientAGraph is available on Github ( under the GNU General Public License v3.0.

Supplementary information

Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.

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