Let $\textit{G(V,E)}$ be an undirected connected graph with distinct costs on its edges. Initialize $\textit{T}$ to be any spanning tree of $\textit{G}$. Consider an algorithm which replaces an edge $\textit{e}$ in $\textit{T}$ by an edge $\textit{e'}$ not in $\textit{T}$, if $\textit{e' < e}$ and replacing it still maintains $\textit{T}$ to be a spanning tree.

I want to prove that this algorithm results in a minimum cost spanning tree of $\textit{G}$.

I am trying to prove this by contradiction - consider that $ \textit{T}$ is the tree which we obtain when the algorithm ends. We assume that there exists $\textit{T'}$ such that $\textit{W(T') < W(T)}$.

Attempt: I tried considering an edge $\textit{e}$ to be the lowest cost edge which is in $\textit{T'}$ but not in $\textit{T}$ (there is at least one since both are different spanning trees). We add $\textit{e}$ to $\textit{T}$ - thus, creating a cycle (since $\textit{T}$ was a spanning tree). There are two possible cases:

  1. $\textit{e}$ is smaller than all the edges of the cycle it induced. But, in this case, the algorithm would not have stopped at $\textit{T}$, it would have replaced one of the edges of the cycle by $\textit{e}$.

  2. $\textit{e}$ is larger than all the edges of the cycle it induced. I suppose this should contradict the minimality of $\textit{T'}$.

Am I anywhere on the right track? I don't know if considering the cycle is the way to do this.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Must I be either shorter than all my friends, or taller than all my friends? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ We're given distinct edges $\endgroup$
    – Mallika
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ My friends and I all have different heights. My question stands. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 1:02
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, completely missed it! Okay, I need to think more about this $\endgroup$
    – Mallika
    Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ Did you manage to get further? You're pretty close already :) One small thing: You mention "minimality of $T'$" towards the end, but earlier you do not explicitly say that $T'$ is minimal, only that $W(T') < W(T)$. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


It is not immediate to see whether OP’s approach can be adapted easily to a full proof.

Here is an answer to the same question but phrased differently, a local minimum in the graph of spanning trees is a (global) minimum spanning tree.

I will present another proof, which is more flexible and probably easier to understand.

Let $G$ be an undirected connected (finite) graph with distinct costs on its edges, as in the original question. Consider the delete-heaviest-edge algorithm on $G$, which removes the heaviest edge in a cycle until no cycle remains. Just to be clearer, let me call the remaining edges at the end of the algorithm $H$. Let us show that $H$ is the minimum cost spanning tree (MST) of $G$.

$H$ is a spanning tree of $G$ because of the following.

  • $H$ is connected, since $G$ is connected and all we have done is breaking cycles.
  • $H$ is has no cycle since the algorithm ends only if there is no cycle.
  • $H$ has all vertices of $G$ since no vertex of $G$ has ever been deleted.

Because of the the cycle property, any edge in any minimal cost spanning tree (MST) of $G$ is never deleted. So all edges of any MST of $G$ remain in $H$. However, any spanning tree of $G$ has the same number of edges, so $H$ must be the unique MST of $G$. (Yes, we have also proved that there is only one MST of $G$, thanks to the distinctness of the costs).

So we have proved that the delete-heaviest-edge algorithm finds the MST. The flexibility of that algorithm is that in each step we can choose any particular cycle.

Following the OP, let $T$ be the spanning tree which we obtain at the end of OP's algorithm. Initialize $G'$ to be a copy of $G$ and $T'$ is the spanning tree of $G'$ that corresponds to $T$. Let $e'$ be an edge in $G'$ but not in $T'$. If we add $e'$ to $T'$, we will create a cycle since $T'$ is spanning. Note that $e'$ must be the unique heaviest edge in that cycle; otherwise, we can substitute $e'$ for that unique heaviest edge, which is in $T'$, to get a lighter spanning tree, which means the OP's algorithm must not end with $T$, a contradiction. Let us run the delete-heaviest-edge algorithm on $G'$ in the following way. We choose that cycle and delete $e'$ from $G'$. Repeat until all edges in $G'$ but not in $T'$ are deleted. What remains is exactly $T'$. Since $T'$ has no cycle, we have actually run the delete-heaviest-edge algorithm to the end. As we have proved, $T'$ is the MST of $G'$. That is, $T$ is the MST of $G$.

  • $\begingroup$ The "delete-heaviest-edge algorithm" in my answer is Vyssotsky’s algorithm according to the book, Algorithms by Robert Sedgewick and Kevin Wayne, fourth edition. $\endgroup$
    – John L.
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 17:59

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