Most people are aware that the appendix is an organ in the abdomen that can become inflamed and sometimes needs to be removed. However, there has long been debate as to what, if any, purpose the appendix has. It is often explained away with a throw-away answer of “It’s a vestigial organ,” meaning one that once had a purpose, but as the species has evolved, the purpose has disappeared. Investigation into the appendix has revealed one thing for certain: studies of the appendix are difficult to conduct. Yet these studies continue, and one such study performed at Duke University Medical School shows promise.
The theory developed at Duke is that the appendix, a small, pouch-like organ located near the junction of the large and small intestines, provides a safe place for good bacteria to reside in the abdomen. Some digestive problems, such as diarrhea, can rapidly clear out the intestines. The appendix, however, provides a safe haven for the good bacteria that line and protect the intestines. While this sounds like an all-around beneficial situation, advancements in hygiene may account for the seeming “uselessness” of this small organ. The more sanitary lifestyle humans now lead makes this good bacteria less essential (not be confused with non-essential). Furthermore, this theory could possibly explain the common occurrence of appendicitis. The lack of “bad bacteria” and other germs in our modern society may cause our immune systems to overreact and attack the good bacteria stored in the appendix.
On average, there are between 200,000 and 300,000 cases of appendicitis in the United States every year, so determining the purpose of this organ can save a lot of people a lot of time, pain, and money. An inflamed appendix can take a person out of commission for some time, and worse, if the infection becomes severe enough, the condition can become deadly. Fortunately, patients seem to be doing just fine after having the appendix removed and the Duke study just may provide the explanation for why this is the case.
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