Three mammalian genes encoding DNA ligases--LIG1, LIG3, and LIG4--have been identified. Genetic, biochemical, and cell biology studies indicate that the products of each of these genes play a unique role in mammalian DNA metabolism. Interestingly, cell lines deficient in either DNA ligase I (46BR.1G1) or DNA ligase III (EM9) are sensitive to simple alkylating agents. One interpretation of these observations is that DNA ligases I and III participate in functionally distinct base excision repair (BER) subpathways. In support of this idea, extracts from both DNA ligase-deficient cell lines are defective in catalyzing BER in vitro and both DNA ligases interact with other BER proteins. DNA ligase I interacts directly with proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) and DNA polymerase beta (Pol beta), linking this enzyme with both short-patch and long-patch BER. In somatic cells, DNA ligase III alpha forms a stable complex with the DNA repair protein Xrcc1. Although Xrcc1 has no catalytic activity, it also interacts with Pol beta and poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP), linking DNA ligase III alpha with BER and single-strand break repair, respectively. Biochemical studies suggest that the majority of short-patch base excision repair events are completed by the DNA ligase III alpha/Xrcc1 complex. Although there is compelling evidence for the participation of PARP in the repair of DNA single-strand breaks, the role of PARP in BER has not been established.