Contentious relationships in phylogenomic studies can be driven by a handful of genes
Phylogenomic studies have resolved countless branches of the tree of life (ToL), but remain strongly contradictory on certain, contentious relationships. Here, we employ a maximum likelihood framework to quantify the distribution of phylogenetic signal among genes and sites for 17 contentious branches and 6 well-established control branches in plant, animal, and fungal phylogenomic data matrices. We find that resolution in some of these 17 branches rests on a single gene or a few sites, and that removal of a single gene in concatenation analyses or a single site from every gene in coalescence-based analyses diminishes support and can alter the inferred topology. These results suggest that tiny subsets of very large data matrices drive the resolution of specific internodes, providing a dissection of the distribution of support and observed incongruence in phylogenomic analyses. We submit that quantifying the distribution of phylogenetic signal in phylogenomic data is essential for evaluating whether branches, especially contentious ones, are truly resolved. Finally, we offer one detailed example of such an evaluation for the controversy regarding the earliest-branching metazoan phylum, where examination of the distributions of gene-wise and site-wise phylogenetic signal across 8 data matrices consistently supports ctenophores as sister group to all other metazoans.