Health

Um, Holy Crap, It Turns Out Your Appendix Is Actually Pretty Important

Published On 01/27/2017 Published On 01/27/2017
appendix
Shaynepplstockphoto/Shutterstock/Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

You know how your whole life you've heard that your appendix is a vestigial organ, one that probably had a function eons ago, but in a modern world is obsolete? And now its only purpose is to get inflamed, infected, and possibly burst, causing all kinds of pain and requiring surgical removal? 

Well, in the immortal words of Rick Perry: Oops

Researchers from Midwestern University have found that, contrary to popular belief and your family doctor, the little pouch attached to the end of your large intestine actually does have a function. A pretty important one: It could serve as a reservoir for friendly gut bacteria. 

If you're not hip to the latest in gastrointestinal research (you aren't?!), one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in the past couple decades has been the discovery that "good" bacteria actually play a crucial role in overall health, particularly immune and gut health.

These bacteria -- collectively called the human microbiome -- far outnumber your human cells, and disturbing them can result in anything from mild upset stomach to life-threatening infections. So if the appendix holds a reserve of helpful bacteria, it may actually be a kind of second-line immune system organ.

How, pray tell, did researchers go about figuring out what an appendix does, what with surgeons throwing them away all willy-nilly? It's evolution, baby. The team from Midwestern found that different mammal species actually develop appendices independently; in other words, the appendix didn't come from a common ancestor, and once it appears in a species, it sticks around.

So the idea that your appendix is obsolete doesn't make much sense if all these species are developing one independently; the fact that it never disappears once it shows up in a species suggests that, yeah, it's doing something important in there.

While the scientists didn't definitively determine the organ's function, they found that it's associated with a higher level of immune tissue in the part of the large intestine to which the appendix is attached, compared with mammals that don't have one. Hence the conclusion that it may help your body ward off disease. 

Whatever the appendix's exact purpose, this research is a good reminder that just because you can take an organ out and survive doesn't mean the organ does NOTHING. Just ask your eyes, or your spleen. Which really shouldn't require a reminder, but there it is.

The lesson, as always: Don't play it fast and loose when it comes to getting rid of your organs. 

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Anthony Schneck is the Health editor at Thrillist who somehow wound up with two appendixes. Appendices? Follow him @AnthonySchneck.

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