Does the Appendix Serve an Important Function After All?
A few elements of the human body’s anatomy are considered to be ‘vestigial’—appendix, wisdom teeth, tailbone, etc. What this means is that these parts don’t appear to play a significant role in the body’s overall day-to-day functions. This is because scientists believe, through evolution and the advancement in lifestyles, the body adapted and we no longer need these parts.
Individuals who have experienced pain from their wisdom teeth prior to having them removed are generally grateful they can have them removed without any chronic problems. On the other hand, scientists are starting to believe that perhaps your appendix serves a purpose other than being a ticking time bomb, waiting to be removed with a surgical instrument during a routine procedure. In fact, a recent study claims that the appendix serves an important biological function.
In this study that was conducted at Midwestern University, researchers traced the appearance, disappearance, and reemergence of the appendix in several mammal lineages over the past 11 million years. This was done to see how many times throughout history the appendix was removed and then later brought back as a result of evolutionary pressures.
Throughout the study, it was discovered that this seemingly unimportant organ has evolved a minimum of 29 times, with the possibility of evolving upwards of 41 different times. This evidence suggests that the appendix is more than just a ‘vestigial’ organ, with little to no value or function. This new information raises the question: if the appendix keeps making a comeback through evolution, what exactly is it good for?
Researchers believe that the appendix is the shrunken remnant of a vital organ that was found in remote ancestors millions of years ago. The reason that it is still found inside humans today is that it is too ‘evolutionarily expensive’ to remove entirely. What this means is that it will take a huge amount of effort for the human species to evolve enough to remove the appendix from the anatomy, when for the majority of the population, it just sits there.
So, now that we know through evolution the appendix has remained, scientist still want to know the purpose of the appendix. The leading belief among scientists and researchers is that it is a haven for ‘good’ intestinal bacteria that work to keep certain infections in check.
This evidence comes from a 2012 study, finding that individuals who had their appendix removed were four times more likely than those with their appendix to have a recurrence of Clostridium difficile colitis—a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, fever, nausea, and abdominal pain.
The good news is, that while we still don’t know definitively what role the appendix plays in human anatomy, it can still be removed with a surgical instrument when it bursts and patients will be able to carry on their everyday lives with little disruption.