For years, it has been thought that the appendix was an unused utility that remained there, in a corner of the large intestine, as if it were a memory of our remote past. Together with the wisdom teeth and the coccyx is part of the select group of evolutionary vestiges of the human body.
But in recent years, interest in their role has increased. Now a group of researchers from Midwestern University has studied how the appendix has evolved in different species of mammals over the last 11 million years. And their conclusions are clear: it has to serve for something.
That old so-called appendix
The results are curious because, according to their data, the appendix has evolved between 29 and 41 times and has only disappeared 12 times. As the researchers explain, these data suggest that the appendix has a “clear selective value”. That is, it is not just a useless structure, but there is something else.
If researchers are right and the appendix is still among us because “getting rid of it” is evolutionarily too expensive, many of the things we thought we knew about this little organ would be wrong. But not all.
If it works for something, what is it for?
For many years, an attempt has been made to find out what the appendage function might be and a lot of theories have been put forward. Of these, the most widely accepted explanation is that the appendix, being an anatomical region relatively separate from the rest of the digestive system, acted as a “backup” of our intestinal bacteria.
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According to this theory, the appendix would help keep different infections at bay. For example, a 2011 study at the Winthrop Hospital in New York found that individuals without an appendix were four times more likely to have Clostridium difficile infections than one with an appendix.
It is precisely this theory that comes to underpin the evolutionary study of the Midwestern team. After reviewing numerous ecological factors, they have come to the conclusion that species with appendages have anatomical adaptations that suggest an important role in the immune system.
No, the function of the appendix has not been found.
However, we must remember that no, the true function of the appendix has not been found, just as last week no new organ was discovered in the human body. Lately we tend to find historical discoveries in every scientific article.
In fact, this research is interesting because it gives us a new evolutionary perspective on a rather unknown organ and because it supports some of the theories that we have handled so far. That is to say, what it says to us is that the appendix must serve for something, that we must think about him in serious and that we must continue searching.