Many enzymes that catalyze protein post-translational modifications (PTM) can specifically modify multiple target proteins. However, little is known regarding the molecular basis and evolution of multi-specificity in these enzymes. Here, we used bioinformatics and experimental approaches to investigate the molecular basis and evolution of multi-specificity in the sirtuin-1 (SIRT1) deacetylase. Guided by bioinformatics analysis of SIRT1 orthologues and substrates, we identified and examined key mutations that have occurred during the evolution of human SIRT1. We found that while these mutants maintain high activity toward conserved histone substrates they exhibit a dramatic loss of activity toward acetylated p53 protein that appeared only in Metazoa. These results demonstrate that active site substitutions in SIRT1 are essential to enable the inclusion of p53 substrate. Our results are consistent with a model in which promiscuous ancestral activity can provide an evolutionary starting point from which multispecificity toward a number of cellular substrates can develop.