The plasma membrane is a lipid bilayer of < 10 nm width that separates intra- and extra-cellular environments and serves as the site of cell-cell communication, as well as communication between cells and the extracellular environment. As such, biophysical phenomena at and around the plasma membrane play key roles in determining cellular physiology and pathophysiology. Thus, the selective visualization and characterization of the plasma membrane are crucial aspects of research in wide areas of biology and medicine. However, the specific characterization of the plasma membrane has been a challenge using conventional imaging techniques, which are unable to effectively distinguish between signals arising from the plasma membrane and those from intracellular lipid structures. In this regard, interface-specific second harmonic generation (SHG) and sum-frequency generation (SFG) imaging demonstrate great potential. When combined with exogenous SHG/SFG active dyes, SHG/SFG can specifically highlight the plasma membrane as the most prominent interface associated with cells. Furthermore, SHG/SFG imaging can be readily extended to multimodal multiphoton microscopy with simultaneous occurrence of other multiphoton phenomena, including multiphoton excitation and coherent Raman scattering, which shed light on the biophysical properties of the plasma membrane from different perspectives. Here, we review traditional and current applications, as well as the prospects of long-known but unexplored SHG/SFG imaging techniques in biophysics, with special focus on their use in the biophysical characterization of the plasma membrane.
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