Most of us don't spend too much time thinking about our appendixes, except if they're throbbing with infection and threatening to kill us—in which case that is ALL we are thinking about. The organ, a little dead-ended tube which is attached to your intestines, has long been assumed to be some kind of useless, vestigial little nubbin. But new research is showing that it might actually serve a very real function. Great, now you tell us, after millions of us have already had them removed.
Bill Parker, an assistant professor of experimental surgery at Duke University, has been making the case for a while that the appendix's function is to stockpile the good bacteria that helps our intestines function. Back in 2008, he explained the theory to Duke Magazine:
The idea is that the appendix is a safe house or a storehouse, even a cultivation center for the normal, beneficial bacteria that our gut needs. That safe house would be necessary and useful in the event that the main compartment of bacteria, the large bowel, got contaminated with some kind of infectious organism and got flushed out.
In the event that a serious infection stripped the intestines of their good bacteria, the appendix, which is sequestered away from the main intestines and has a tiny little opening, could then shed some of the good bacteria it's been storing back into the large intestines and "re-inoculate the system."
That actually makes a fair amount of sense, seeing as having healthy gut bacteria is pretty essential to our survival, and now Parker is getting some further backup for this idea. James Grendell, chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at Winthrop University-Hospital, led a team that studied 252 patients who had a history of Clostridium difficile infections. C. diff, as it's usually called, is a bacteria commonly found in hospitals that usually infects people who have been on lengthy courses of antibiotics. If you've got a healthy intestinal tract, C. diff doesn't compete with your gut bacteria, but when your gut bacteria becomes compromised (which antibiotics can achieve pretty easily), C. diff takes over and can make your life miserable by causing severe diarrhea. Once you've got it, it can be very difficult to get rid of and can often recur.
So, if Parker is correct, people who have had their appendixes removed should be more likely to have recurring C. diff infections than people who still have theirs. That's exactly what Grendell's team discovered, according to Scientific American:
[P]atients without an appendix were more than twice as likely to have a recurrence of C. difficile. Recurrence in individuals with their appendix intact occurred in 18 percent of cases. Recurrence in those without their appendix occurred in 45 percent of cases.
That is definitely compelling evidence, though more research needs to be done before we can totally understand what role the appendix is playing in maintaining levels of good gut bacteria.
If this theory is correct, what does it mean for those of us without appendixes? Are we destined to live a life empty of good gut bacteria? Not exactly. Parker points out that the world we live in is so much more sanitary than the world our ancestors lived in that we rarely face the kind of gut bacteria wipe-outs that the they would have—cholera and dysentery, for instance, aren't typically seen in the first world countries where appendectomies are common.
In the end, the immediate mortal danger of having an infected appendix is obviously far worse than the danger of being without a long-term stockpile of good gut bacteria. So, if you must face an appendix-free life, take heart, you'll probably survive without it—just try not to catch any serious intestinal infections or you'll be in for some Oregon Trail-style suffering.
Image via hkannn/Shutterstock.