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In order to produce effective antibodies, B cells undergo rapid somatic hypermutation (SHM) and selection for binding affinity to antigen via a process called affinity maturation. The similarities between this process and evolution by natural selection have led many groups to use phylogenetic methods to characterize the development of immunological memory, vaccination, and other processes that depend on affinity maturation. However, these applications are limited by the fact that most phylogenetic models are designed to be applied to individual lineages comprising genetically diverse sequences, while B cell repertoires often consist of hundreds to thousands of separate low-diversity lineages. Further, several features of affinity maturation violate important assumptions in standard phylogenetic models. Here, we introduce a hierarchical phylogenetic framework that integrates information from all lineages in a repertoire to more precisely estimate model parameters while simultaneously incorporating the unique features of SHM. We demonstrate the power of this repertoire-wide approach by characterizing previously undescribed phenomena in affinity maturation. First, we find evidence consistent with age-related changes in SHM hot-spot targeting. Second, we identify a consistent relationship between increased tree length and signs of increased negative selection, apparent in the repertoires of recently vaccinated subjects and those without any known recent infections or vaccinations. This suggests that B cell lineages shift toward negative selection over time as a general feature of affinity maturation. Our study provides a framework for undertaking repertoire-wide phylogenetic testing of SHM hypotheses and provides a means of characterizing dynamics of mutation and selection during affinity maturation.

Original publication




Journal article


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Publication Date





22664 - 22672


Department of Pathology, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520.