The effects of the two inhibitors of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, 3-aminobenzamide (ABA) and benzamide (BA), on the oxidative killing of L929 mouse fibroblasts and primary cultures of rat hepatocytes were studied. The killing of L929 cells by tert-butyl hydroperoxide (TBHP) occurred by two mechanisms, one sensitive and the other insensitive to the antioxidant N,N'-diphenylphenylene diamine (DPPD). Cell killing by either mechanism was prevented by the ferric iron chelator deferoxamine. ABA and BA prevented the killing of L929 cells that occurred in the presence, but not in the absence, of DPPD. ABA and BA inhibited the activity of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase by 85%. Protection was accompanied by the sparing of the depletion of both NAD and ATP, but there was no effect of either ABA or BA on the iron-dependent appearance of single-strand breaks in DNA. Depletion of ATP by treating the fibroblasts with 2-deoxyglucose and sodium azide did not result in any loss of viability. H2O2 similarly killed the L929 cells by a mechanism that depended on a source of ferric iron. However, DPPD had no effect on the cell killing, and ABA and BA completely protected the cells in the presence or absence of DPPD. H2O2 caused the appearance of single-strand breaks that were prevented by deferoxamine, but again not by ABA or BA. ABA and deferoxamine reduced, but did not prevent, the depletion of both NAD and ATP occurring with H2O2. With the cultured hepatocytes, ABA and BA inhibited poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase at concentrations that were without effect on either the extent of cell killing or the depletion of NAD occurring with either TBHP, H2O2, or menadione. These data indicate that the relationship between oxidative DNA damage and the genesis of lethal injury is very different in the two types of cells. In the fibroblasts, the appearance of single strand breaks in DNA was accompanied by depletion of NAD and ATP and subsequently by the death of the cells. These events were mediated by the activity of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, as inhibition of the enzyme prevented their development. In the hepatocytes, inhibition of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase was without effect on the oxidative death of the cells.