The appendix does have a use - re-booting the gut

For generations medical orthodoxy has maintained that the appendix is useless, warranting attention only for its tendency to become painfully inflamed and requiring swift removal. But now the reputation of this cul-de-sac in the human gut has been rehabilitated by a theory from a team of immunologists .

The US scientists found that the appendix acted as a "good safe house" for bacteria essential for healthy digestion, in effect re-booting the digestive system after the host has contracted diseases such as amoebic dysentery or cholera, which kill off helpful germs and purge the gut.

This function has been made obsolete by modern, industrialised society; populations are now so dense that people pick up essential bacteria from each other, allowing gut organisms to regrow without help from the appendix, the researchers said.

But in earlier centuries, when vast tracts of land were more sparsely populated and whole regions could be wiped out by an epidemic of cholera, the appendix provided survivors with a vital individual stockpile of suitable bacteria.

"The function of the appendix seems related to the massive amount of bacteria that populates the human digestive system," said Bill Parker, a professor of surgery and one of the scientists responsible for establishing its status as a useful organ. "The location of the appendix, just below the normal one-way flow of food and germs in the large intestine, helps support the theory."

Other studies had shown that, in less-developed countries where the appendix may still be useful, the rate of appendicitis was lower than in the US, he said.

The theory, developed by a team from Duke University Medical School, North Carolina, and published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, has sent ripples through the scientific community. It "seems by far the most likely" explanation for the function of the appendix and "makes evolutionary sense", said Douglas Theobald, a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University in Boston.

"I'll bet we'll eventually find the same sort of thing with the tonsils," said Gary Huffnagle, a professor of internal medicine and microbiology at the University of Michigan.

The appendix is a worm-like tube between two and four inches long protruding from the start of the large intestine. Doctors routinely remove it should it become infected and inflamed – a burst appendix can cause peritonitis, which can kill.

In the UK, one in six people will have their appendix out at some point in their lives, although appendicitis is most common between the ages of eight and 14. NHS surgeons perform about 39,000 appendectomies a year.

And other 'spare parts'

* Male nipples

Men have nipples and mammary tissue which can be stimulated to produce milk. They can also get breast cancer.

* Wisdom teeth

Early humans had an extra row of molars to help with the vast quantity of vegetation they had to chew .

* Coccyx

The remains of a tail lost long before man began to walk upright six million years ago.

* Spare ribs

Humans have 12 ribs but about eight per cent of people have an extra pair, as do chimps and gorillas.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

    £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital