Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerases are involved in many aspects of regulation of cellular functions. Using NAD+ as a substrate, they catalyse the covalent transfer of ADP-ribose units onto several acceptor proteins to form a branched ADP-ribose polymer. The best characterised and first discovered member of this multiprotein family is PARP-1. Its catalytic activity is markedly stimulated upon binding to DNA strand interruptions, and the resulting polymer is thought to function in chromatin relaxation as well as in signalling the presence of damage to DNA repair complexes and in regulating enzyme activities. Moderate activation of PARP-1 facilitates the efficient repair of DNA damage arising from monofunctional alkylating agents, reactive oxygen species or ionising radiation, but severe genotoxic stress leads to rapid energy consumption and subsequently to necrotic cell death. The latter aspect of PARP-1 activity has been implicated in the pathogenesis of various clinical conditions such as shock, ischaemia-reperfusion and diabetes. Inhibition of ADP-ribose polymer formation has been shown to be effective, on the one hand, in the treatment of cancer in combination with alkylating agents by suppressing DNA repair and thus driving tumour cells into apoptosis, and on the other hand it appears to be a promising drug target for the treatment of pathologic conditions involving oxidative stress. In view of the existence of several members of the PARP family in mammalian cells, one has to be aware of possible side effects but also of a wide spectrum of potential clinical applications, which calls for the development of more specific inhibitors.