spleen, soft, purplish-red organ that lies under the diaphragm on the left side of the abdominal cavity. The spleen acts as a filter against foreign organisms that infect the bloodstream, and also filters out old red blood cells from the bloodstream and decomposes them. These functions are performed by phagocytic cells that are capable of engulfing and destroying bacteria, parasites, and debris. Ordinarily, the spleen manufactures red blood cells only toward the end of fetal life, and after birth that function is taken over by the bone marrow. However, in cases of bone marrow breakdown, the spleen reverts to its fetal function. The spleen also acts as a blood reservoir; during stress or at other times when additional blood is needed, the spleen contracts, forcing stored blood into circulation (see circulatory system). It is sometimes necessary to remove the spleen entirely, particularly in trauma cases, although recent studies have shown the spleen to be far more important than initially suspected in the fight against infection.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.