Monday, April 21, 2008

So THIS Is Why We Have an Appendix!

Long denigrated as a useless part of the human anatomy, it appears the appendix actually serves a very functional purpose. According to immunologists from Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., the appendix is a kind of "safe house" for the beneficial bacteria living in the human gut.

Basically, it's a place where good bacteria can be produced and live safely until they are needed. Some diseases, such as cholera or amoebic dysentery, clear the gut of useful bacteria, called flora. When that happens, the appendix kicks in to reboot the digestive system.

A slender two- to four-inch pouch located near the juncture of the large and small intestines, the appendix's exact function in humans has been debated by physicians for decades. One thing doctors do know for sure: The appendix contains immune system tissue.

Lots of different microbes live in our gut to help the digestive system break down the foods we eat. In return, the gut provides nourishment and safety to the bacteria. Lead study author William Parker, assistant professor of experimental surgery at Duke, now believes that the immune system cells found in the appendix are there to protect, rather than harm, the good bacteria.

For the past ten years, Parker has been studying the interplay of these bacteria in the bowels, and in the process has documented the existence in the bowel of what is known as a biofilm. This thin and delicate layer is an amalgamation of microbes, mucous and immune system molecules living together atop the lining of the intestines. "Our studies have indicated that the immune system protects and nourishes the colonies of microbes living in the biofilm," Parker explained in a statement announcing the study findings. "By protecting these good microbes, the harmful microbes have no place to locate. We have also shown that biofilms are most pronounced in the appendix and their prevalence decreases moving away from it."

If the appendix is so important, why do we get appendicitis, a disease that can be deadly without prompt medical attention? Parker theorizes that people who live in "hygienic" industrialized societies have more allergies and autoimmune diseases because they haven't been challenged by a host of parasites and other disease-causing organisms. So when our immune systems are challenged, they can overreact. "This over-reactive immune system may lead to the inflammation associated with appendicitis and could lead to the obstruction of the intestines that causes acute appendicitis," Parker explained. "Thus, our modern health care and sanitation practices may account not only for the lack of a need for an appendix in our society, but also for much of the problems caused by the appendix in our society."

Here's a fun trivia fact: Other than humans, the only mammals known to have appendices are rabbits, opossums and wombats, and their appendices are markedly different than the human appendix.

The study findings were published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
--From the Editors at Netscape

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