We present a detailed analysis of the generation of second-harmonic radiation from biological membranes labeled with a styryl dye. In particular, we consider the high-numerical-aperture limit appropriate to high-resolution microscopy in which an excitation beam is tightly focused from the side onto a membrane surface. In this limit the active surface area that contributes to second-harmonic generation (SHG) depends only on the tightness of the beam focus and the SHG radiation is confined by phase matching into two well-defined off-axis lobes. We derive expressions for the SHG radiation power, angular distribution, and polarization dependence in the cases of ideal or nonideal molecular alignment in the membrane and uniaxiality of the molecular hyperpolarizability. We define an SHG cross section similar to that used in two-photon-excited fluorescence (TPEF) to permit direct comparison of the two imaging modalities. Finally, we corroborate our results with experiments based on the excitation of a styryl dye in giant unilamellar vesicles with a mode-locked Ti:sapphire laser.
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