This is part one of a two-part article where we take a look at NAD+ biology, its history, how it relates to the biology of aging, and the potential for therapeutic interventions via the so-called NAD+ precursors.

What is NAD+?

Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) is a coenzyme found in all living cells. It is a dinucleotide, which means that it consists of two nucleotides joined through their phosphate groups. One nucleotide contains an adenine base, and the other contains nicotinamide.

In metabolism, NAD facilitates redox reactions, carrying electrons from one reaction to another. This means that NAD is found in two forms in the cell; NAD+ is an oxidizing agent that takes electrons from other molecules in order to become its reduced form, NADH. NADH can then become a reducing agent that donates the electrons it carries. The transfer of electrons is one of the main functions of NAD, though it also performs other cellular processes, including acting as a substrate for enzymes that add or remove chemical groups from proteins in post-translational modifications.

NAD+ is created from simple building blocks, such as the amino acid tryptophan, and it is created in a more complex way via the intake of food that contains nicotinic acid (niacin) or other NAD+ precursors. These different pathways ultimately feed into a salvage pathway, which recycles them back into the active NAD+ form.

Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) biology has seen a great deal of interest in the last few years, partially due to the discovery of two precursors of NAD+ biosynthesis, nicotinamide riboside (NR) and nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN), which both increase NAD+ in multiple tissues.

Accumulating evidence suggests that NAD+ systemically declines with age in a variety of organisms, including rodents and humans, which contributes to the development of many age-related diseases. For this reason, there is a great deal of interest in creating potential interventions that increase NAD+ levels via precursors, thus delaying or even preventing certain aspects of age-related functional decline and diseases.

History of NAD+ research

Before we talk more about NAD+ precursors, let’s take a look at the history of NAD+ biology in order to get a better idea of the background and research that has taken place.

We have known about NAD+ for over a hundred years. Harden and Young originally discovered NAD+ back in 1906, when they discovered that it increased the rate of fermentation in yeast [1]. In the years following this, Euler-Chelpin, a German-born Swedish biochemist, identified that NAD+ was a nucleotide and, in 1929, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on the fermentation of sugar and the enzymes involved in the resulting complex reactions.

In 1937, the American biochemist Conrad Elvehjem identified two vitamins, nicotinic acid and nicotinamide, which were deficient in people suffering from pellagra [2]. In 1949, Elvehjem showed that nicotinamide was able to prevent pellagra in dogs by increasing the production of NAD+ [3]. This discovery ended up with nicotinic acid and nicotinamide being classified as vitamin B3, and they are considered to be the original NAD+ precursors.

The first NAD+ gold rush

In 1963, there was a surge of interest in NAD+, when Chambon, Weill, and Mandel showed that NMN activated a previously unknown DNA-dependent polyadenylic acid-synthesizing nuclear enzyme [4]. This research subsequently led to the discovery of poly-ADP-ribose and poly-ADP-ribose polymerases (PARPs), which are part of a family of proteins involved in a number of cellular processes, including DNA repair, maintaining genomic stability, and programmed cell death [5].

In 1965, Hayaishi and his team started to reveal the NAD+ pathway, how it was created via tryptophan, and the NAD+ intermediate nicotinic acid mononucleotide (NMN) [6].  In 1966, Gholson suggested that there was an active turnover cycle of NAD+, which, at the time, performed “an important but as yet unknown function” relating to cellular metabolism [7]. A decade later, in 1976, this was confirmed by Rechsteiner and his team when they published evidence for the rapid turnover of NAD+; this further supported the suggestion that NAD+ had another major function in eukaryotic cells in addition to its established role in oxidation and reduction [8].

In 1989, Lee and his research team incubated NAD+ with extracts from sea urchin eggs, discovering a new NAD+ metabolite, cyclic ADP-ribose [9]. The enzyme ADP-ribosyl cyclase was initially identified in 1991 by Lee and his team in Aplysia, a type of large sea slug [10]. It was later found to exist in mammals as CD38, which was confirmed by Lee, Walseth, and Lee in 1992 [11].

The second NAD+ gold rush

There was another surge of interest in NAD+ biology that happened in the year 2000 and has lasted until the present. The study that started the renewed interest was published by Guarente in 2000, which showed that yeast SIR2 (silent information regulator 2) and the related mouse ortholog, SIRT1, both had NAD+ dependent protein deacetylase activity [12]. Adding further fuel to the fire, in 2001, human nicotinamide/nicotinic acid mononucleotide adenylyltransferase (NMNAT) was successfully isolated [13]. NMNAT is an important NAD+ biosynthetic enzyme, so its isolation and characterization was an important step.

Next, nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase (NAMPT), a rate-limiting enzyme responsible for converting nicotinamide into NAD+, was isolated and characterized between 2002-2004 [14-15].

In 2004, nicotinamide riboside was shown to lead to the creation of NAD+ via nicotinamide riboside kinases (NRKs). This study demonstrated that nicotinic acid mononucleotide was not the only path to NAD+ biosynthesis [16].

That brings us to the end of our potted history of NAD+; almost half a century after the first surge of interest, we are now enjoying a new era of research and discovery in NAD+ biology. Join us for part two of this article, where we will be delving deeper into the NAD world.


[1] Harden, A., & Young, W. J. (1906, October). The alcoholic ferment of yeast-juice. Part II.—The coferment of yeast-juice. In Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (Vol. 78, No. 526, pp. 369-375). The Royal Society.

[2] Simoni, R. D., Hill, R. L., & Vaughan, M. (2002). Copper as an Essential Nutrient and Nicotinic Acid as the Anti-black Tongue (Pelagra) Factor: the Work of Conrad Arnold Elvehjem. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 277(34), e22-e22.

[3] Elvehjem, C. A. (1949). Pellagra: A Deficiency Disease. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 93(4), 335-339.

[4] Chambon, P., Weill, J. D., & Mandel, P. (1963). Nicotinamide mononucleotide activation of a new DNA-dependent polyadenylic acid synthesizing nuclear enzyme. Biochemical and biophysical research communications, 11(1), 39-43.

[5] Herceg, Z., & Wang, Z. Q. (2001). Functions of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) in DNA repair, genomic integrity and cell death. Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis, 477(1), 97-110.

[6] Ikeda, M., Tsuji, H., Nakamura, S., Ichiyama, A., Nishizuka, Y., & Hayaishi, O. (1965). Studies on the biosynthesis of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide II. a role of picolinic carboxylase in the biosynthesis of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide from tryptophan in mammals. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 240(3), 1395-1401.

[7] Gholson, R. K. (1966). The pyridine nucleotide cycle. Nature, 212(5065), 933.

[8] Rechsteiner, M., Hillyard, D., & Olivera, B. M. (1976). Magnitude and significance of NAD turnover in human cell line D98/AH2. Nature, 259(5545), 695.

[9] Lee, H. C., Walseth, T. F., Bratt, G. T., Hayes, R. N., & Clapper, D. (1989). Structural determination of a cyclic metabolite of NAD+ with intracellular Ca2+-mobilizing activity. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 264(3), 1608-1615.

[10] Lee, H. J., Hong, Y. S., Jun, W., & Yang, S. J. (2015). Nicotinamide riboside ameliorates hepatic metaflammation by modulating NLRP3 inflammasome in a rodent model of type 2 diabetes. Journal of medicinal food, 18(11), 1207-1213.

[11] Walseth, T. F., & Lee, H. C. (1992). Similarities in amino acid sequences of Aplysia ADP-ribosyl cyclase and human lymphocyte antigen CD38. Trends in biochemical sciences, 17(12), 495.

[12] Imai, S. I., Armstrong, C. M., Kaeberlein, M., & Guarente, L. (2000). Transcriptional silencing and longevity protein Sir2 is an NAD-dependent histone deacetylase. Nature, 403(6771), 795.

[13] Schweiger, M., Hennig, K., Lerner, F., Niere, M., Hirsch-Kauffmann, M., Specht, T., … & Ziegler, M. (2001). Characterization of recombinant human nicotinamide mononucleotide adenylyl transferase (NMNAT), a nuclear enzyme essential for NAD synthesis. FEBS letters, 492(1-2), 95-100.

[14] Revollo, J. R., Grimm, A. A., & Imai, S. I. (2004). The NAD biosynthesis pathway mediated by nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase regulates Sir2 activity in mammalian cells. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 279(49), 50754-50763.

[15] Rongvaux, A., Shea, R. J., Mulks, M. H., Gigot, D., Urbain, J., Leo, O., & Andris, F. (2002). Pre‐B‐cell colony‐enhancing factor, whose expression is up‐regulated in activated lymphocytes, is a nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase, a cytosolic enzyme involved in NAD biosynthesis. European journal of immunology, 32(11), 3225-3234.

[16] Bieganowski, P., & Brenner, C. (2004). Discoveries of nicotinamide riboside as a nutrient and conserved NRK genes establish a Preiss-Handler independent route to NAD+ in fungi and humans. Cell, 117(4), 495-502.

About the author

Steve Hill

Steve serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor in Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 500 articles on the topic as well as attending various medical industry conferences. In 2019 he was listed in the top 100 journalists covering biomedicine and longevity research in the industry report – Top-100 Journalists covering advanced biomedicine and longevity created by the Aging Analytics Agency. His work has been featured in H+ magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, and, Keep me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project. In 2015 he led the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP) for the International Longevity Alliance and in 2016 helped the team of the SENS Research Foundation to reach their goal for the OncoSENS campaign for cancer research.
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