Research indicates that the body’s most underrated organ plays an important role in fighting serious infection.
Perhaps our Paleolithic relatives already recognized the value of the appendix. After all, scientists believe that the diets our early caveman ancestors were made up largely of plant material. This created a need for the digestive system to have a large cecum that had the ability to break down plant tissue.
As our ancestors moved towards a diet based more on fruit that was easier to digest, there was no longer a need for a large cecum, so it began to shrink. Today, the cecum is very tiny. As the cecum shrank so did the appendix and thus it was mistakenly assumed to no longer have a function.
Today, scientists are challenging the thought that there is no purpose for the appendix. It seems it’s been very evident for at least a century that it contains a tissue type related to the lymphatic system, which is responsible for carrying the white blood cells that fight infection. Now, research conducted in the past decade has shown the lymphatic tissue encourages some types of beneficial gut bacteria to grow.
A team of international researchers that included surgeon William Parker from Duke University in North Carolina and evolutionary biologist Heather F. Smith from Midwestern University in Arizona studied the appendix, and they found the most compelling evidence that there is a purpose for the wormlike organ.
The research team examined the diets of 50 species and 361 mammals thought to have an appendix and then they plotted that data on an evolutionary tree. The researchers were able to determine that the appendix develops when a specific mammal group changes its diet.
The results showed that the appendix does indeed perform a useful function. It plays an immunological role as a “safe house” for beneficial gut bacteria that help to train the immune system and prevent disease by keeping dangerous pathogenic bacteria contained.
It seems that when bad bacteria manage to get control and overrun the gut, the good bacteria retreat to the appendix to stay safe and unaffected. When the immune system has taken care of the infection, then the good bacteria return to the gut to re-colonize.
Far from being an arbitrary appendage, the appendix is uniquely located so that it can carry out its role of keeping good bacteria safe. After all this time of simply seeing the appendix as an expendable organ, perhaps we really do need to rethink its importance.
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