What Is The Appendix Good For?

All of my life, I have been taught that the appendix in our digestive system served no function. Perhaps it was useful a long time ago if our ancestors ate grass? But lately, like the last few thousand years, it’s been the poster organ for something that could do us more harm than good.

But you learn something new every day — research over the last ten-or-so years suggests an appendix may be useful to have after all.

The leading scientific hypothesis is that it’s a haven for ‘good’ intestinal bacteria that helps keep certain infections at bay. For example, a 2012 study (with the sobering title of “Your Appendix Could Save Your Life”) found that individuals without an appendix were four times more likely to have a recurrence of Clostridium difficile colitis – a bacterial infection more commonly known as C-diff that causes, well, trust me, it’s something you don’t want to get.

Another line of research is to examine the evolutionary tree, which is what a team from Midwestern University has done. First they gathered data on the presence or absence of the appendix across 533 mammal species over the past 11 million years. In each instance, they traced how the appendix evolved over that time. They discovered the organ always remained once it appeared. As explained in their press statement, “[T]he appendix has evolved independently in several mammal lineages, over 30 separate times, and almost never disappears from a lineage once it has appeared. This suggests that the appendix likely serves an adaptive purpose.”

Next, the researchers investigated what that “adaptive purpose” might be by considered various ecological factors like social behaviors, diet, and local climate. Skipping the scientific details, their analysis suggested the appendix could play an important role in the immune system by stimulating growth of certain types of beneficial bacteria.

So if you’ve had no reason to remove your appendix, you might consider keeping it as long as you can.

There are a number of articles on this subject on the Internet, including possible uses for reconstructive surgery; my source was “Your Appendix Might Serve an Important Biological Function After All” at Science Alert (https://www.sciencealert.com/your-appendix-might-serve-an-important-biological-function-after-all-2). The photo came from that site.

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