Reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, particularly peroxynitrite, are potent inducers of tissue damage during systemic inflammatory response and circulatory shock. Recent evidence indicates that the toxicity of these species largely depends on their ability to trigger activation of the nuclear enzyme poly(adenosine 5-diphosphate ribose) polymerase-1 (PARP-1). Following excessive activation, PARP-1 depletes the intracellular stores of its substrate, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, thus slowing glycolysis, generation of high energy phosphates, and mitochondrial electron transport. Consequently, the severe metabolic crisis induced by PARP-1 activation results in acute cell dysfunction and necrotic cell death. In addition, activation of PARP-1 plays an important role in the upregulation of inflammatory cascades via a functional association with mitogen-activated protein kinases and several transcription factors, such as nuclear factor kappa B, resulting in augmented expression of proinflammatory cytokines, chemokines, adhesion molecules, and enzymes. In severe sepsis and hemorrhage, PARP-1 activation has emerged as one of the central mechanisms of systemic inflammation, endothelial dysfunction, peripheral vascular failure, and reduction of cardiac contractility. Innovative therapeutic strategies based on the pharmacological inhibition of PARP-1 catalytic activity might provide benefits by preventing tissue injury, organ dysfunction, and lethality associated with these conditions.