BACKGROUNDThere have been many algorithms and software programs implemented for the inference of multiple sequence alignments of protein and DNA sequences. The "true" alignment is usually unknown due to the incomplete knowledge of the evolutionary history of the sequences, making it difficult to gauge the relative accuracy of the programs.RESULTSWe tested nine of the most often used protein alignment programs and compared their results using sequences generated with the simulation software Simprot which creates known alignments under realistic and controlled evolutionary scenarios. We have simulated more than 30,000 alignment sets using various evolutionary histories in order to define strengths and weaknesses of each program tested. We found that alignment accuracy is extremely dependent on the number of insertions and deletions in the sequences, and that indel size has a weaker effect. We also considered benchmark alignments from the latest version of BAliBASE and the results relative to BAliBASE- and Simprot-generated data sets were consistent in most cases.CONCLUSIONOur results indicate that employing Simprot's simulated sequences allows the creation of a more flexible and broader range of alignment classes than the usual methods for alignment accuracy assessment. Simprot also allows for a quick and efficient analysis of a wider range of possible evolutionary histories that might not be present in currently available alignment sets. Among the nine programs tested, the iterative approach available in Mafft (L-INS-i) and ProbCons were consistently the most accurate, with Mafft being the faster of the two.