H2O2, in concentrations achieved in the proximity of stimulated leukocytes, induces injury and lysis of target cells. This may be an important aspect of inflammatory injury of tissues. Cell lysis in two target cells, the murine macrophage-like tumor cell line P388D1 and human peripheral lymphocytes, was found to be associated with activation of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (EC 188.8.131.52), a nuclear enzyme. This enzyme is activated under various conditions of DNA damage. Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase utilizes nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) as substrate and has been previously shown to consume NAD during exposure of cells to oxidants that was associated with inhibition of glycolysis, a decrease in cellular ATP, and cell death. In the current studies, inhibition of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase by 3-aminobenzamide, nicotinamide, or theophylline in cells exposed to lethal concentrations of H2O2 prevented the sequence of events that eventually led to cell lysis--i.e., the decrease in NAD, followed by depletion of ATP, influx of extracellular Ca2+, actin polymerization and, finally, cell death. DNA damage, the initial stimulus for poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activation, occurred despite the inhibition of this enzyme. Cells exposed to oxidant in the presence of the poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase inhibitor 3-aminobenzamide failed to demonstrate repair of DNA strand breaks.