The unique luminescent properties of new-generation synthetic nanomaterials, upconversion nanoparticles (UCNPs), enabled high-contrast optical biomedical imaging by suppressing the crowded background of biological tissue autofluorescence and evading high tissue absorption. This raised high expectations on the UCNP utilities for intracellular and deep tissue imaging, such as whole animal imaging. At the same time, the critical nonlinear dependence of the UCNP luminescence on the excitation intensity results in dramatic signal reduction at (~1 cm) depth in biological tissue. Here, we report on the experimental and theoretical investigation of this trade-off aiming at the identification of optimal application niches of UCNPs e.g. biological liquids and subsurface tissue layers. As an example of such applications, we report on single UCNP imaging through a layer of hemolyzed blood. To extend this result towards in vivo applications, we quantified the optical properties of single UCNPs and theoretically analyzed the prospects of single-particle detectability in live scattering and absorbing bio-tissue using a human skin model. The model predicts that a single 70-nm UCNP would be detectable at skin depths up to 400 μm, unlike a hardly detectable single fluorescent (fluorescein) dye molecule. UCNP-assisted imaging in the ballistic regime thus allows for excellent applications niches, where high sensitivity is the key requirement.
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