To examine base excision repair (BER) capacity in the context of living cells, we developed and applied a plasmid-based reporter assay. Non-replicating plasmids containing unique DNA base lesions were designed to express luciferase only after lesion repair had occurred, and luciferase expression in transfected cells was measured continuously during a repair period of 14 h. Two types of DNA lesions were examined: uracil opposite T reflecting repair primarily by the single-nucleotide BER sub-pathway, and the abasic site analogue tetrahydrofuran (THF) opposite C reflecting repair by long-patch BER. We found that the repair capacity for uracil-DNA in wild type mouse fibroblasts was very strong, whereas the repair capacity for THF-DNA, although strong, was slightly weaker. Repair capacity in DNA polymerase beta (Pol beta) null cells for uracil-DNA and THF-DNA was reduced by approximately 15% and 20%, respectively, compared to that in wild type cells. In both cases, the repair deficiency was fully complemented in Pol beta null cells expressing recombinant Pol beta. The effect of inhibition of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) activity on repair capacity was examined by treatment of cells with the inhibitor 4-amino-1,8-naphthalimide (4-AN). PARP inhibition decreased the repair capacity for both lesions in wild type cells, and this reduction was to the same level as that seen in Pol beta null cells. In contrast, 4-AN had no effect on repair in Pol beta null cells. The results highlight that Pol beta and PARP function in the same repair pathway, but also suggest that there is repair independent of both Pol beta and PARP activities. Thus, before the BER capacity of a cell can be predicted or modulated, a better understanding of Pol beta and PARP activity-independent BER pathways is required.