View from the North 40: Science isn’t done answering “What am I, really?”


“4 New Body Parts Discovered in the Last 10 Years,” it’s the kind of headline you’d expect to read connected to an ongoing serial killer case or maybe it’s an episode name on “Criminal Minds” — but, no, that right there is science.

What that SciShow YouTube video headline means is that doctors, scientists, researchers, they’re all still discovering new parts in the human body, our human bodies. Like humans don’t have an identity crisis already.

A couple weeks ago I learned that there is a real part found in tractor and airplane fuel systems called a gascolator. It sounds totally fake, like a muffler bearing or a starboard stabilizing aelertooter. But learning about something new is different from discovering it because people knew about the gascolator — not me, but smart, gassy people.

Someone dreamed it up, maybe there’s a patent, certainly there’s a parts list naming it, a catalog with pictures, and surely, with a name like that, there’s a schematic somewhere.

On the other hand, we have mapped the entire genetic code of the infinite mystery called human, and yet we still didn’t know we had an interstitium right there in our own bodies until 2014 when doctors at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City were scoping things out around someone’s bile duct and one of them said, “Ew, what’s that?”

“It’s interstitial fluid filling in the gaps between cells, duh. Everyone knows that,” the other doctor said.

“No. Not that,” the first doc said. “That! It’s a sac holding the fluid in place. Wait. What? There’s a whole network of them.”

“Oh, great. Now we’re gonna have to stay late and map them,” second doc said.

And they did.

Turns out that the interstitium network is the largest organ of the body, which has to be an insult to skin, long known as the clever answer to “What’s the largest organ of the human body?”

The video also reveals that researchers at University of Nottingham in 2013 discovered a sixth layer of eyeball membrane in the cornea. Apparently it’s made mostly of collagen and there’s hope it will help fight organ rejection in cases of cornea transplants — but it still won’t protect your eye if you go running around with a pencil in your hand, so that caution remains in place.

In 2019, researchers reported that they finally figured out humans have tiny capillaries running in and out of humankind’s large bones. The capillaries transport stem cells from the bone marrow to the rest of the body, and it conveniently explained why some bones would get little bleeding spots when doctors hacked into them — another proof of Occam’s Razor theory that says the simplest answer is likely the right one.

And the fourth discovery is a lymphatic system in the inner lining of the skull. A couple different research teams discovered this in mice in 2015 and had it confirmed by 2018 in humans. And if you’re like me, you’re totally excited about this but don’t have a clue what the lymphatic system does. The simplest answer, I guess, is that this new lymphatic system is the waste-water treatment plant of brain.

It’s not the most glamorous municipal service, even in the brain, but it’s needed.

A few other anatomy discoveries aren’t about finding new body parts, but rather new discoveries about old ones.

Humans have known since the first glimpse inside a mammal that some stuff called the mesentery holds internal organs secure inside the body cavity. Apparently we always thought it was a network of connective tissues, but — and you might want to sit down for this — researchers at University of Limerick discovered in 2011 that the mesentery is all one piece, and it’s an organ of the body, not some no-account pieces is pieces, parts is parts of the body.

Interestingly, they have no idea what it does as an organ that is different from what it did when it was considered strands of connective tissue, but organ status is a big deal and lots of publications were writing about it in January of 2017, including National Geographic.

It’s a prestige thing.

Finally, odds are that you, or one of your loved ones, have a fabella. Nothing to be embarrassed about. This is a tiny bone, set in tendons behind the knee. So what? Fair question.

Even the National Institute of Health says it’s a pointless body part.

It’s the appendix of the bone world, and like the appendix, NIH said its only purpose is to fail, cause pain and require surgical removal.

Nevertheless, it’s gaining in genetic popularity and people in 2018 are 3.5 times more likely to have a fabella than people in 1918.

So, despite its lack of purpose, I guess we should just go ahead and add the fabella to the human parts list — put it in the Infinite Mysteries category with the footnote “no replacement parts necessary.”

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I just hope we can find someone to draw up the new human body schematic at http://www.facebook.com/viewfromthenorth40.com .