The ever growing number of completely sequenced prokaryotic genomes facilitates cross-species comparisons by genomic annotation algorithms. This paper introduces a new probabilistic framework for comparative genomic analysis and demonstrates its utility in the context of improving the accuracy of prokaryotic gene start site detection. Our framework employs a product hidden Markov model (PROD-HMM) with state architecture to model the species-specific trinucleotide frequency patterns in sequences immediately upstream and downstream of a translation start site and to detect the contrasting non-synonymous (amino acid charging) and synonymous (silent) substitution rates that differentiate prokaryotic coding from intergenic regions. Depending on the intricacy of the features modeled by the hidden state architecture, intergenic, regulatory, promoter and coding regions can be delimited by this method. The new system is evaluated using a preliminary set of orthologous Pyrococcus gene pairs, for which it demonstrates an improved accuracy of detection. Its robustness is confirmed by analysis with cross-validation of an experimentally verified set of Escherichia coli K-12 and Salmonella thyphimurium LT2 orthologs. The novel architecture has a number of attractive features that distinguish it from previous comparative models such as pair-HMMs.
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