PHYLIP multiple sequence alignment format (

The PHYLIP file format stores a multiple sequence alignment. The format was originally defined and used in Joe Felsenstein’s PHYLIP package [R165], and has since been supported by several other bioinformatics tools (e.g., RAxML [R166]). See [R167] for the original format description, and [R168] and [R169] for additional descriptions.

An example PHYLIP-formatted file taken from [R167]:

      5    42


Original copyright notice for the above PHYLIP file:

(c) Copyright 1986-2008 by The University of Washington. Written by Joseph Felsenstein. Permission is granted to copy this document provided that no fee is charged for it and that this copyright notice is not removed.

Format Support

Has Sniffer: No

Reader Writer Object Class
No Yes skbio.alignment.Alignment

Format Specification

PHYLIP format is a plain text format containing exactly two sections: a header describing the dimensions of the alignment, followed by the multiple sequence alignment itself.

The format described here is “strict” PHYLIP, as described in [R168]. Strict PHYLIP requires that each sequence identifier is exactly 10 characters long (padded with spaces as necessary). Other bioinformatics tools (e.g., RAxML) may relax this rule to allow for longer sequence identifiers. See the Alignment Section below for more details.

The format described here is “sequential” format. The original PHYLIP format specification [R167] describes both sequential and interleaved formats.


scikit-bio currently only supports writing strict, sequential PHYLIP-formatted files from an skbio.alignment.Alignment. It does not yet support reading PHYLIP-formatted files, nor does it support relaxed or interleaved PHYLIP formats.

Header Section

The header consists of a single line describing the dimensions of the alignment. It must be the first line in the file. The header consists of optional spaces, followed by two positive integers (n and m) separated by one or more spaces. The first integer (n) specifies the number of sequences (i.e., the number of rows) in the alignment. The second integer (m) specifies the length of the sequences (i.e., the number of columns) in the alignment. The smallest supported alignment dimensions are 1x1.


scikit-bio will write the PHYLIP format header without preceding spaces, and with only a single space between n and m.

PHYLIP format does not support blank line(s) between the header and the alignment.

Alignment Section

The alignment section immediately follows the header. It consists of n lines (rows), one for each sequence in the alignment. Each row consists of a sequence identifier (ID) and characters in the sequence, in fixed width format.

The sequence ID can be up to 10 characters long. IDs less than 10 characters must have spaces appended to them to reach the 10 character fixed width. Within an ID, all characters except newlines are supported, including spaces, underscores, and numbers.


While not explicitly stated in the original PHYLIP format description, scikit-bio only supports writing unique sequence identifiers (i.e., duplicates are not allowed). Uniqueness is required because an skbio.alignment.Alignment cannot be created with duplicate IDs.

scikit-bio supports the empty string ('') as a valid sequence ID. An empty ID will be padded with 10 spaces.

Sequence characters immediately follow the sequence ID. They must start at the 11th character in the line, as the first 10 characters are reserved for the sequence ID. While PHYLIP format does not explicitly restrict the set of supported characters that may be used to represent a sequence, the original format description [R167] specifies the IUPAC nucleic acid lexicon for DNA or RNA sequences, and the IUPAC protein lexicon for protein sequences. The original PHYLIP specification uses - as a gap character, though older versions also supported .. The sequence characters may contain optional spaces (e.g., to improve readability), and both upper and lower case characters are supported.


scikit-bio will write a PHYLIP-formatted file even if the alignment’s sequence characters are not valid IUPAC characters. This differs from the PHYLIP specification, which states that a PHYLIP-formatted file can only contain valid IUPAC characters. To check whether all characters are valid before writing, the user can call Alignment.is_valid().

Since scikit-bio supports both - and . as gap characters (e.g., in skbio.alignment.Alignment), both are supported when writing a PHYLIP-formatted file.

When writing a PHYLIP-formatted file, scikit-bio will split up each sequence into chunks that are 10 characters long. Each chunk will be separated by a single space. The sequence will always appear on a single line (sequential format). It will not be wrapped across multiple lines. Sequences are chunked in this manner for improved readability, and because most example PHYLIP files are chunked in a similar way (e.g., see the example file above). Note that this chunking is not required by the PHYLIP format.


Let’s create an alignment with three DNA sequences of equal length:

>>> from skbio import Alignment, DNA
>>> seqs = [DNA('ACCGTTGTA-GTAGCT', id='seq1'),
...         DNA('A--GTCGAA-GTACCT', id='sequence-2'),
...         DNA('AGAGTTGAAGGTATCT', id='3')]
>>> aln = Alignment(seqs)
>>> aln
<Alignment: n=3; mean +/- std length=16.00 +/- 0.00>

Now let’s write the alignment to file in PHYLIP format, and take a look at the output:

>>> from StringIO import StringIO
>>> fh = StringIO()
>>> aln.write(fh, format='phylip')
>>> print(fh.getvalue())
3 16
sequence-2A--GTCGAA- GTACCT

>>> fh.close()

Notice that the 16-character sequences were split into two chunks, and that each sequence appears on a single line (sequential format). Also note that each sequence ID is padded with spaces to 10 characters in order to produce a fixed width column.

If the sequence IDs in an alignment surpass the 10-character limit, an error will be raised when we try to write a PHYLIP file:

>>> long_id_seqs = [DNA('ACCGT', id='seq1'),
...                 DNA('A--GT', id='long-sequence-2'),
...                 DNA('AGAGT', id='seq3')]
>>> long_id_aln = Alignment(long_id_seqs)
>>> fh = StringIO()
>>> long_id_aln.write(fh, format='phylip')
Traceback (most recent call last):
PhylipFormatError: Alignment can only be written in PHYLIP format if all sequence IDs have 10 or fewer characters. Found sequence with ID 'long-sequence-2' that exceeds this limit. Use Alignment.update_ids to assign shorter IDs.
>>> fh.close()

One way to work around this is to update the IDs to be shorter. The recommended way of accomplishing this is via Alignment.update_ids, which provides a flexible way of creating a new Alignment with updated IDs. For example, to remap each of the IDs to integer-based IDs:

>>> short_id_aln, _ = long_id_aln.update_ids()
>>> short_id_aln.ids()
['1', '2', '3']

We can now write the new alignment in PHYLIP format:

>>> fh = StringIO()
>>> short_id_aln.write(fh, format='phylip')
>>> print(fh.getvalue())
3 5
1         ACCGT
2         A--GT
3         AGAGT

>>> fh.close()