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Appendix Purpose

October 30, 2007

The appendix might not be useless after all.


A job description for the appendix. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Scientists have long wondered what the human appendix does. Now, Duke University immunologist William Parker and his colleagues have proposed a theory: that it’s a safe house for the helpful bacteria in our gut. They’ve found that the appendix is especially rich in these good bacteria. And the organ’s thin, narrow shape may shut out harmful infections.

WILLIAM PARKER (Duke University):
Suppose some kind of amoeba gets in there that causes amoebic dysentery: something really bad. And basically your normal gut bacteria are all contaminated. Everything is going to get flushed out as a defensive mechanism.

Except, perhaps, from the appendix, which would then replenish the good bacteria from its protected reserves. Parker says such severe infections are rare in industrialized nations, which may explain why we can live normally with our appendix removed. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.