Appendix may not be useless

Colin Barras / ScienceNOW /

Published Feb 15, 2013 at 04:00AM

The appendix may not be useless after all. The worm-shaped structure found near the junction of the small and large intestines evolved 32 times among mammals, according to a new study. The finding adds weight to the idea that the appendix helps protect our beneficial gut bacteria when a serious infection strikes.

Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to theorize on the function of the appendix, which in his day had been identified only in humans and other great apes. He hypothesized that the distant ancestors of these animals survived on a diet of leaves, and so they required a large cecum, a portion of the gut that houses bacteria that can break down stubborn plant tissue. Later, he speculated, these ancestors shifted to a largely fruit-based diet that was easier to digest. A large cecum was no longer necessary, and it began to shrink; today our cecum is tiny. Darwin thought the appendix, which juts off of the cecum, is one of its former folds that shriveled up as the cecum shrank. Consequently, he thought it carried no function.

Now, an international team of researchers says it has the strongest evidence yet that the appendix serves a purpose. In a new study, published online this month in Comptes Rendus Palevol, the researchers compiled information on the diets of 361 living mammals, including 50 species now considered to have an appendix, and plotted the data on a mammalian evolutionary tree. They found that the 50 species are scattered so widely across the tree that the structure must have evolved independently at least 32 times, and perhaps as many as 38 times.