The WPGMA method is similar to its unweighted variant, the UPGMA method.
The WPGMA algorithm constructs a rooted tree (dendrogram) that reflects the structure present in a pairwise distance matrix (or a similarity matrix). At each step, the nearest two clusters, say and , are combined into a higher-level cluster . Then, its distance to another cluster is simply the arithmetic mean of the distances between and members of :
The WPGMA algorithm produces rooted dendrograms and requires a constant-rate assumption: it produces an ultrametric tree in which the distances from the root to every branch tip are equal. This ultrametricity assumption is called the molecular clock when the tips involve DNA, RNA and protein data.
- First clustering
Let us assume that we have five elements and the following matrix of pairwise distances between them :
In this example, is the smallest value of , so we join elements and .
- First branch length estimation
Let denote the node to which and are now connected. Setting ensures that elements and are equidistant from . This corresponds to the expectation of the ultrametricity hypothesis. The branches joining and to then have lengths (see the final dendrogram)
- First distance matrix update
We then proceed to update the initial distance matrix into a new distance matrix (see below), reduced in size by one row and one column because of the clustering of with . Bold values in correspond to the new distances, calculated by averaging distances between the first cluster and each of the remaining elements:
Italicized values in are not affected by the matrix update as they correspond to distances between elements not involved in the first cluster.
- Second clustering
We now reiterate the three previous steps, starting from the new distance matrix :
Here, is the smallest value of , so we join cluster and element .
- Second branch length estimation
Let denote the node to which and are now connected. Because of the ultrametricity constraint, the branches joining or to , and to are equal and have the following length:
We deduce the missing branch length: (see the final dendrogram)
- Second distance matrix update
We then proceed to update the matrix into a new distance matrix (see below), reduced in size by one row and one column because of the clustering of with :
Of note, this average calculation of the new distance does not account for the larger size of the cluster (two elements) with respect to (one element). Similarly:
The averaging procedure therefore gives differential weight to the initial distances of matrix . This is the reason why the method is weighted, not with respect to the mathematical procedure but with respect to the initial distances.
- Third clustering
We again reiterate the three previous steps, starting from the updated distance matrix .
Here, is the smallest value of , so we join elements and .
- Third branch length estimation
Let denote the node to which and are now connected. The branches joining and to then have lengths (see the final dendrogram)
- Third distance matrix update
There is a single entry to update:
The final matrix is:
So we join clusters and .
Let denote the (root) node to which and are now connected. The branches joining and to then have lengths:
We deduce the two remaining branch lengths:
The WPGMA dendrogram
The dendrogram is now complete. It is ultrametric because all tips ( to ) are equidistant from :
The dendrogram is therefore rooted by , its deepest node.
- Molecular clock
- Cluster analysis
- Single-linkage clustering
- Complete-linkage clustering
- Hierarchical clustering
- Sokal R and Michener C (1958). "A statistical method for evaluating systematic relationships". University of Kansas Science Bulletin. 38: 1409–1438.