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Scientists Find More Evidence That Your Appendix Serves a Purpose

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It’s time to stop picking on the appendix. An article published in the journal Comptes Rendus Palevol supports the theory that the much-maligned organ may serve as a “safe house” for beneficial bacteria.

Your appendix is a little tube connected to the cecum (a pouch at the end of your large intestine) on the right side of your abdomen. Most of us know two things about the appendix: that infection there is dangerous, and that the organ itself is useless. The first statement is definitely true. A burst appendix is nobody’s idea of a good time. But useless? Perhaps not.

One scientific paper published in early 2016 found that removing an appendix-like structure in mice made them more susceptible to infection and inflammation. Other researchers have argued that the little tube acts as a reservoir for beneficial gut bacteria, keeping them safe even when infection damages the rest of the gut’s bacterial ecosystem. When the dust settles, the good guys in the appendix can start afresh, repopulating the gut with protective microbes.

Heather F. Smith researches the evolution of our bodies at Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. For her latest study, she and her colleagues compared the developmental history of the appendix in 533 mammal species.

The researchers found that, far from originating once in a single common ancestor, the appendix evolved independently more than 30 different times—a fact that suggests that it must do something.

The data also showed that species that have an appendix also have a higher concentration of lymphoid tissue, which supports immunity and the growth of beneficial bacteria, in the cecum. Taken all together, these findings support the theory that your appendix is there to help keep you safe and crawling with the right kind of microbes.

So it’s useful, yes. But do we need it? Not entirely. “In general,” Smith told TIME, “people who have had an appendectomy tend to be relatively healthy and not have any major detrimental effects.”

There may be some minor effects, though. People who’ve undergone appendectomies are slightly more prone to infection. “It may also take them slightly longer to recover from illness,” Smith said, “especially those in which the beneficial gut bacteria has been flushed out of the body.”

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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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entertainment
Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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