There are one million molecules of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) in mammalian cell nuclei and the enzyme is found in most eukaryotes, with the notable exception of yeasts. In response to DNA damage caused by ionizing radiation or alkylating agents, PARP binds to strand interruptions in DNA and undergoes rapid automodification with synthesis of long branched polymers of highly negatively charged poly(ADP-ribose). DNA repair occurs after dissociation of modified PARP from DNA strand breaks. Biochemical data with enzyme-depleted extracts and studies of enzyme-deficient mice show that PARP does not participate directly in DNA repair. Possible roles for poly(ADP-ribose) synthesis are discussed.