Although considered useless for decades, the appendix is now ascribed a new body function, which is anything but redundant, reveals recent research. Namely, scientists have discovered that this organ is in fact a storage room for beneficial gut bacteria, which the body uses to “restart” the digestive system, especially after being affected with dysentery or cholera.
Traditional medicine regarded this small sack bulging from the first section of the large intestine as simply redundant or as an evolutionary vestige of a once useful organ. What’s more, people have been advised for years to have it removed because of its redundancy.
Researchers from Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina found that the appendix acts as a reserve for beneficial gut bacteria, which then emerge, for example, after a severe bout of cholera or dysentery, both of which can purge the gut of bacteria vital for digestion.
However, in the words of Professor Bill Parker, this doesn’t imply that the appendix should be kept by all means, “It’s very important for people to understand that if their appendix gets inflamed, just because it has a function it does not mean they should try to keep it in.”
“So it’s sort of a fun thing that we’ve found, but we don’t want it to cause any harm, we don’t want people to say, ‘oh, my appendix has a function’, so I’m not going to go to the doctor, I’m going to try to hang onto it.”
Even Nicholas Vardaxis, an associate professor in the Department of Medical Sciences at RMIT University, supports the theory put forward by the Duke University team. “As an idea it’s an attractive one, that perhaps it would be a nice place for these little bacteria to localize in, a little cul-de-sac away from everything else.”
“The thing is that if we observe what’s been happening through evolution, the higher on the evolutionary scale we are and the more omnivorous animals become then the smaller and less important the appendix becomes and humans are a good example of that.
“The actual normal flora bacteria within the appendix, as well within our gut, are the same, so we’ve lost all of those specialized bacteria.
“So it doesn’t have that safe house type of function anymore, I don’t think.
“It’s a vestige of something that was there in previous incarnations, if you like.”
Scientists made the discovery by examining the appendices of koalas, which are extremely long compared to the short human variety.
This organ is highly beneficial for their diet which almost entirely consists of eucalyptus leaves.
Although the human appendix acts in a similar manner to that of koalas, Professor Vardaxis says that it is improbable that the Australian marsupial’s organ will shrink any time soon.
“Unless of course we have a massive blight and we get the eucalypt on which the koala thrives dying, then we may find some mutant koalas out there perhaps that will start eating other things, and as they start to eat other things, then over generations and hundreds of thousands of years of time, then surely, yes, the koala’s appendix will shrink as well.”
According to Professor Vardaxis, the shrinkage of the appendix in humans resulted from changes in our diet that took place over thousands of years. This leaves an open possibility for species with a larger appendix now, to find themselves in a similar situation if their diet was to change significantly, and their appendix began to shrink. Even koalas can suffer from appendicitis and have to have it taken out, just like humans, says Vardaxis.