The appendix is a small, worm-shaped organ that lies at the junction of the small and large intestine. Its purpose has long been debated, with many medical experts suggesting that it has no use at all, while others believe it may store ‘good’ bacteria. It certainly can have an impact on one’s health. It can be removed if it becomes infected without any discernible impact, whereas if it isn’t removed in time, it can cause serious illness or even death. While the debate rages on, research into the appendix is ongoing. Now a new study adds evidence to the suggestion that the appendix does play a useful role in the body after all.
According to the Huffington Post, the study was published online in Comptes Rendus Palevol in February 2013. It involved a team of international researchers looking at the diets of around 361 species of mammals, 50 of which are known to have an appendix. The findings collected by the researchers were mapped on a ‘mammalian evolutionary tree.’ What was interesting as a result is that the 50 species were so widely scattered on the tree that the appendix must have evolved at least 32 times and possibly more.
The article goes on to explain that some experts doubt that the figure is as high as the researchers believe, because not all of the 50 species referred to definitely have an appendix. Nevertheless, when those species about which there is doubt are removed from the study, the data still suggests that the appendix has evolved 18 times. Other experts have come forward to suggest that the study’s findings make sense and are therefore valuable in finding out the true purpose of the appendix.
One of the team of researchers involved in this study is Bill Parker from the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. In 2007, he conducted another study into the appendix and, as a result, reasoned that the appendix is a store-house of good bacteria. In the past, when populations were less dense than they are now, the appendix was more necessary; nowadays, people can easily replace dead gut flora with germs passed on by other people.
Parker also suggested that people in less developed countries have a much lower risk of appendicitis because the appendix still provides a necessary function. In more industrialised countries, however, the appendix is more likely to pick up an infection because it is largely redundant and it can easily be removed. In fact, as 300-400 Americans die each year from appendicitis, it most definitely should be removed if it is inflamed.
What hasn’t yet been discovered is why, if the appendix does have a purpose, not all mammals have one. Nevertheless, the data builds on the information already compiled on the appendix and will hopefully spur scientists on to further research.