What are Sirtuins?

Mary McMahon

Sirtuins are proteins found in a wide variety of living organisms, from yeasts to people. These proteins appear to play a critical role in the aging process, which has made them of particular interest to human researchers who are interested in the possibility of prolonging life. Like many scientific discoveries, the story of sirtuins was greatly simplified when it made its way into the mainstream media, which has led to some confusion about what these proteins do and how they work.

Increasing consumption of compounds like resveratrol, which is found in red wine, may slow the aging process by activating sirtuins.
Increasing consumption of compounds like resveratrol, which is found in red wine, may slow the aging process by activating sirtuins.

Studies on sirtuins show that they are involved in metabolic regulation. They turn particular genes on and off as needed, for example, and they also work to repair damage to the DNA. They are implicated in aging because as organisms age, the risk of damage to the DNA increases, and the sirtuins may become increasingly focused on addressing specific sites of damage, sometimes causing confusion in gene activation. Some researchers have suggested that the body may “forget” which genes are supposed to be active, inadvertently activating genes which cause further damage, contributing to aging.

The term “sirtuin” is a play on Silent Information Regulator 2 (SIR2) proteins, the formal name for this class of proteins. Like other proteins in the body, the levels of sirtuins can be influenced by a wide variety of factors, and some compounds, including resveratrol, a substance found in many plants, appear to activate sirtuins. Resveratrol is sometimes touted as an “anti-aging compound,” which is not actually the case, since resveratrol only plays an indirect role in the aging process.

If the theories are correct, increasing consumption of compounds like resveratrol could slow the aging process by activating sirtuins. Some studies in laboratories have supported these theories, showing that the use of such compounds in organisms like mice does indeed slow the systemic damage caused by aging. However, researchers caution the lay public to be aware that these tests involve very controlled environments and very high levels of such compounds, and that these results may be difficult to replicate in the real world.

Sirtuins are also only one piece of the aging puzzle. Students of gerontology are certainly interested in these proteins and the way in which they work, but they are also interested in a wide range of other biological processes and chemical compounds. Ethicists have also raised issues about the potential for so-called “biological immortality,” suggesting that although humans may someday find a way to extend life dramatically, this may come with complex social, legal, ethical, and personal issues.

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