In the Shortest Common Superstring (SCS) problem, one is given a collection of strings, and needs to find a shortest string containing each of them as a substring. SCS admits (2+11/23)-approximation in polynomial time (Mucha, SODA'13). While this algorithm and its analysis are technically involved, the 30 years old Greedy Conjecture claims that the trivial and efficient Greedy Algorithm gives a 2-approximation for SCS.

We develop a graph-theoretic framework for studying approximation algorithms for SCS. The framework is reminiscent of the classical 2-approximation for Traveling Salesman: take two copies of an optimal solution, apply a trivial edge-collapsing procedure, and get an approximate solution. In this framework, we observe two surprising properties of SCS solutions, and we conjecture that they hold for all input instances. The first conjecture, that we call Collapsing Superstring conjecture, claims that there is an elementary way to transform any solution repeated twice into the same graph G. This conjecture would give an elementary 2-approximate algorithm for SCS. The second conjecture claims that not only the resulting graph G is the same for all solutions, but that G can be computed by an elementary greedy procedure called Greedy Hierarchical Algorithm. While the second conjecture clearly implies the first one, perhaps surprisingly we prove their equivalence. We support these equivalent conjectures by giving a proof for the special case where all input strings have length at most 3. We prove that the standard Greedy Conjecture implies Greedy Hierarchical Conjecture, while the latter is sufficient for an efficient greedy 2-approximate approximation of SCS. Except for its (conjectured) good approximation ratio, the Greedy Hierarchical Algorithm provably finds a 3.5-approximation.

Alexander S. Kulikov is a senior research fellow at St. Petersburg Department of Steklov Mathematical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His scientific interests include algorithms for NP-hard problems and circuit complexity. He is one of the authors of the Data Structures and Algorithms specialization at Coursera.