Dehydroergosterol (DHE) is an intrinsically fluorescent sterol with absorption/emission in the ultraviolet (UV) region and biophysical properties similar to those of cholesterol. We compared the potential of UV-sensitive low-light-level wide-field (UV-WF) imaging with that of multiphoton (MP) excitation microscopy to monitor DHE in living cells. Significantly reduced photobleaching in MP microscopy of DHE enabled us to acquire three-dimensional z-stacks of DHE-stained cells and to obtain high-resolution maps of DHE in surface ruffles, nanotubes, and the apical membrane of epithelial cells. We found that the lateral resolution of MP microscopy is similar to 1.5-fold higher than that of UV-WF deconvolution microscopy, allowing for improved spatiotemporal analysis of plasma membrane sterol distribution. Surface intensity patterns of DHE with a diameter of 0.2 mu m persisting over several minutes could be resolved by MP time-lapse microscopy. Diffusion coefficients of 0.25-mu m-diameter endocytic vesicles containing DHE were determined by MP spatiotemporal image correlation spectroscopy. The requirement of extremely high laser power for visualization of DHE by MP microscopy made this method less potent for multicolor applications with organelle markers like green fluorescent protein-tagged proteins. The signal-to-noise ratio obtainable by UV-WF imaging could be significantly improved by pixelwise bleach rate fitting and calculation of an amplitude image from the decay model and by frame averaging after pixelwise bleaching correction of the image stacks. We conclude that UV-WF imaging and MP microscopy of DHE provide complementary information regarding membrane distribution and intracellular targeting of sterols. Microsc. Res. Tech. 74:92-108, 2011. (C) 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.