Poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation is a posttranslational modification of nuclear proteins which is catalyzed by poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase and represents an immediate response of eukaryotic cells to oxidative and other types of DNA damage. Previously a strong correlation had been detected between maximal poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activity in permeabilized mononuclear leukocytes of various mammalian species and species-specific life span. To study a possible relation between longevity and poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation in humans we measured maximal oligonucleotide-stimulated poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activity in permeabilized, Epstein-Barr virus transformed lymphoblastoid cell lines from a French population of 49 centenarians and 51 controls aged 20-70 years. Maximal enzyme activity was significantly higher in centenarians than in controls [median of controls: 9035 cpm/10(6) cells (lower quartile: 6156; upper quartile: 11,410); median of centenarians: 10,380 cpm/10(6) cells (lower quartile: 7994; upper quartile: 12,991); P=0.031 by Mann-Whitney U test]. In a subset of 16 controls and 24 centenarians, cellular poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase content was determined by quantitative western blotting, thus allowing the calculation of specific enzyme activity. The latter was significantly higher in centenarians (P=0.006), the median value for centenarians being about 1.6-fold that of controls. Specific poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activity was a more powerful parameter for differentiating between centenarians and controls than enzyme activity relative to cell number. In addition, in a genetic association study we analyzed 437 DNA samples (239 centenarians and 198 controls) by PCR amplification of a polymorphic dinucleotide repeat located in the promoter region of the poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase gene in an attempt to detect an association between this polymorphic marker and variability of enzyme activity or human longevity. However, this genetic analysis revealed no significant enrichment of any of the alleles or genotypes identified among centenarians or controls, but its power was limited by the relatively weak heterozygosity of this polymorphic marker in our population (51%). Viewed together with previous results on poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activity in various mammalian species, the present data provide further evidence for the notion that longevity is associated with a high poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation capacity.