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24 October 2007

Is Your Appendix Really a Useless Organ?

Your appendix, long touted by doctors to have no apparent purpose, turns out to be good for something after all. Surgeons and immunologists from Duke University Medical School believe your appendix produces and protects the good bacteria in your gut.

There are more bacteria in your body than cells, and much of it is used to help you digest food. However, if your good bacteria dies, as the result of cholera or dysentery for instance, your appendix appears to restore good bacteria to your gut.

Your appendix acts like a “bacteria factory” that “cultivates good germs,” according to the study’s authors.

They pointed out that this function is not needed in industrialized society, because if your gut flora dies you can easily repopulate it with germs from other people. In the past, however, the appendix came in handy when disease epidemics affected entire regions, and the good bacteria was not easy to repopulate.

In modern times, appendixes may still be useful in less developed countries.

If your appendix becomes infected, it can lead to death, which is why surgeons have removed them routinely for generations. Even with the new theory for your appendix’s purpose, the researchers said you should have yours removed if it becomes inflamed.

About 300 to 400 Americans die, and about 321,000 are hospitalized, due to appendicitis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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