Sirtuin 1 also known as NAD-dependent deacetylase sirtuin 1, is a protein that in humans is encoded by the Sirt1 gene. Sirt1 is an enzyme that deacetylates proteins that contribute to cellular regulation and is a key regulator of cell defenses and survival in response to stress. Deletion of Sirt1 abolishes the increase in lifespan induced by calorie restriction or sublethal cytokine stress, indicating that Sirt1 promotes longevity and survival. We have demonstrated that administration of a sublethal dose of tumour necrosis factor-α (TNF-α; 1.25 ng ml(-1)) inhibits myotube formation, and co-incubation with insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I; 1.5 ng ml(-1)) facilitates C2 myoblast death rather than rescuing differentiation. A higher dose of TNF-α (10 ng ml(-1)) resulted in significant apoptosis, which was rescued by IGF-I (1.5 ng ml(-1); 50% rescue; P < 0.05). We aimed to investigate the role of Sirt1 in the conflicting roles of IGF-I. Quantitative real-time PCR revealed that Sirt1 expression was elevated in myoblasts following incubation of 10 ng ml(-1) TNF-α or 1.25 ng ml(-1) TNF-α plus IGF-I (fivefold and 7.2-fold increases versus control, respectively; P < 0.05). A dose of 10 ng ml(-1) TNF-α induced ∼21 ± 0.7% apoptosis, which was reduced (∼50%; P < 0.05) when administered with IGF-I. Likewise, Sirt1 expression was elevated following 10 ng ml(-1) TNF-α administration, but was reduced (∼30%; P < 0.05) in the presence of IGF-I. C2C12 myoblasts, a subclone of the C2 cell line produced for their differentiation potential and used to examine intrinsic ageing, unlike C2 cells, do not die in the presence of TNF-α and do not upregulate Sirt1. As conditions that induced the greatest myoblast stress/damage resulted in elevated Sirt1 expression, we investigated the effects of Sirt1 gene silencing. Treatment with 10 ng ml(-1) TNF-α or co-incubation with 1.25 ng ml(-1) TNF-α and 1.5 ng ml(-1) IGF-I resulted in apoptosis (20.33 ± 2.08 and 19 ± 2.65%, respectively), which was increased when myoblasts were pretreated with Sirt1 small interfering RNA (31 ± 2.65 and 27.33 ± 2.52%, respectively; P < 0.05) and was reduced (14.33 ± 3.05%, P < 0.05 and 12.78 ± 4.52%, P = 0.054) by resveratrol, which also significantly rescued the block on differentiation. In conclusion, Sirt1 expression increases in conditons of stress, potentially serving to reduce or dampen myoblast death.