The metabolic causes for immune impairment in patients with severe chronic inflammatory diseases have not been clearly defined. Recently, the overproduction of poly(ADP-ribose) in resting lymphocytes with unrepaired DNA strand breaks has been suggested to contribute to immune dysfunction in adenosine deaminase-deficient patients. Our experiments have determined to what extent DNA damage and poly(ADP-ribose) synthesis might also explain the impaired mitogen responsiveness of PBL exposed to toxic oxygen species. Treatment of normal resting human lymphocytes with xanthine oxidase and hypoxanthine dose-dependently induced DNA strand breaks and triggered the rapid synthesis of poly(ADP-ribose). Subsequently, NAD+ and ATP pools decreased precipitously. Lymphocytes exposed previously to the enzymatic oxidizing system did not synthesize DNA after stimulation with PHA. However, if the medium was supplemented with 3-aminobenzamide or nicotinamide, two compounds that inhibit poly(ADP-ribose) formation, cellular NAD+ and ATP pools were preserved, and the lymphocytes responded vigorously to a mitogenic challenge. Excessive poly(ADP-ribose) synthesis, provoked by DNA strand breakage, may represent a common pathway that connects the immunodeficiency syndromes associated with (a) exposure of lymphocytes to toxic oxygen species during chronic inflammatory states, (b) adenosine deaminase deficiency, and (c) certain DNA repair disorders.