The organ could serve as a reservoir for beneficial gut bacteria.
Heather F. Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine, is currently studying the evolution of the appendix across mammals. Dr. Smith’s international research team gathered data on the presence or absence of the appendix and other gastrointestinal and environmental traits for 533 mammal species.
They mapped the data onto a phylogeny (genetic tree) to track how the appendix has evolved through mammalian evolution, and to try to determine why some species have an appendix while others don’t.
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They discovered that the appendix has evolved independently in several mammal lineages, over 30 separate times, and almost never disappears from a lineage once it has appeared. This suggests that the appendix likely serves an adaptive purpose. Looking at ecological factors, such as diet, climate, how social a species is, and where it lives, they were able to reject several previously proposed hypotheses that have attempted to link the appendix to dietary or environmental factors. Instead, they found that species with an appendix have higher average concentrations of lymphoid (immune) tissue in the cecum. This finding suggests that the appendix may play an important role as a secondary immune organ. Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a “safe house” for helpful gut bacteria.