Poly(ADP-ribose) is a naturally occurring nuclear macromolecule resembling nucleic acids. It is synthesized from NAD+ on histones and a few other nuclear proteins. Its function, although not completely understood, might be to alter chromatin structure and to regulate the activity of proteins involved in the metabolism of DNA strand breaks such as ligase II, and topoisomerase I. In addition, poly(ADP-ribose) modifies proteins involved in gene expression such as acetylated histones. HMG proteins, and T antigen. The enzyme poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase responsible for this modification has the unique property of requiring nicks or free ends on the DNA for its activity and of being automodified. The automodified enzyme, presumably found at the vicinity of DNA strand breaks at damaged chromatin sites, could remove histones from DNA and attract enzymes that have an affinity for poly(ADP-ribose) such as ligase II or poly(ADP-ribose) glycohydrolase, the polymer-degrading enzyme. Alterations in chromatin structure alter gene expression and seem to be involved in repair, replication, and recombination and in changing DNA superhelical density, intermediate steps in molecular carcinogenesis. Experiments with cells in culture and laboratory animals show that inhibition of poly(ADP-ribosylation) alters transformation and tumorigenicity brought about by a great number of carcinogenic agents. Cancer can be caused by the accumulation of unrepaired DNA strand breaks in the cell accelerating gene rearrangements, deletions, insertions and amplifications. Repair of DNA strand breaks shows an absolute dependence upon the rapid synthesis and degradation of poly(ADP-ribose). The polymer has a very short half life indeed. Data are reviewed on changes in chromatin structure and function caused by histone and nonhistone poly(ADP-ribosylation). The link of this modification to transformation, tumorigenesis, development, replication and gene expression is examined. A model is proposed to explain the effect of poly(ADP-ribosylation) on chromatin structure at the molecular level. Mono- and oligo(ADP-ribosylated) histones present in nuclei under physiological conditions are proposed to functions, like acetylated histones, in maintaining chromatin loops into transcriptionally active structures. On the other hand, poly(ADP-ribosylated) histones and poly(ADP-ribosylated) enzymes such as DNA and RNA polymerases, suggested to be modified from in vitro studies, might only appear in cells that have been heavily damaged by carcinogen. Their function might be to remove histones from DNA in order to facilitate repair and to shut down transcription and replication.