Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase is a chromatin-bound enzyme which, on activation by DNA strand breaks, catalyzes the successive transfer of ADP-ribose units from NAD to nuclear proteins. Poly(ADP-ribose) synthesis is stimulated by DNA strand breaks, and the polymer may alter the structure and/or function of chromosomal proteins to facilitate the DNA repair process. Electronmicroscopic studies show that poly(ADP-ribose) unwinds the tightly packed nucleosomal structure of isolated chromatin. Recent studies also show that the presence of poly(ADP-ribose) enhances the activity of DNA ligase. This may increase the capacity of the cell to complete DNA repair. Inhibitors of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase or deficiencies of the substrate, NAD, lead to retardation of the DNA repair process. When DNA strand breaks are extensive or when breaks fail to be repaired, the stimulus for activation of poly(ADP-ribose) persists and the activated enzyme is capable of totally consuming cellular pools of NAD. Depletion of NAD and consequent lowering of cellular ATP pools, due to activation of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, may account for rapid cell death before DNA repair takes place and before the genetic effects of DNA damage become manifest.