Expression of the gene encoding poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP), although ubiquitous, nevertheless varies substantially between tissues. We have recently shown that Sp1 binds five distinct target sequences (US-1 and F1-F4) in the rat PARP (rPARP) gene promoter. Here we used deletion analyses and site-directed mutagenesis to address the regulatory function played by these Sp1 sites on the basal transcriptional activity directed by the rPARP promoter. Transfection experiments revealed that the most proximal Sp1 site is insufficient by itself to direct any promoter activity. In addition, a weak negative regulatory element was identified between positions -101 and -60. The rPARP promoter directed high levels of chloramphenicol acetyltransferase activity in Jurkat T-lymphoblastoid and Ltk- fibroblast cells but only moderate levels in pituitary GH4C1 and liver HTC cells, correlating with the amounts of PARP detected in these cells by western blot analysis. However, the reduced promoter efficiency in HTC and GH4C1 cells did not result from the lack of Sp1 activity in these cells but suggested that yet uncharacterized regulatory proteins might turn off PARP gene expression by binding negative regulatory elements from the rPARP promoter. Similarly, site-directed mutagenesis on the three most proximal Sp1 elements suggested the influence exerted by Sp1 on the rPARP promoter activity to vary substantially between cell types. It also provided evidence for a basal rPARP promoter activity driven through the recognition of unidentified cis-acting elements by transcription factors other than Sp1.