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Summary

Ecology, with a traditional focus on plants and animals, seeks to understand the mechanisms underlying structure and dynamics of communities. In microbial ecology, the focus is changing from planktonic communities to attached biofilms that dominate microbial life in numerous systems. Therefore, interest in the structure and function of biofilms is on the rise. Biofilms can form reproducible physical structures (i.e. architecture) at the millimetre-scale, which are central to their functioning. However, the spatial dynamics of the clusters conferring physical structure to biofilms remains often elusive. By experimenting with complex microbial communities forming biofilms in contrasting hydrodynamic microenvironments in stream mesocosms, we show that morphogenesis results in ‘ripple-like’ and ‘star-like’ architectures – as they have also been reported from monospecies bacterial biofilms, for instance. To explore the potential contribution of demographic processes to these architectures, we propose a size-structured population model to simulate the dynamics of biofilm growth and cluster size distribution. Our findings establish that basic physical and demographic processes are key forces that shape apparently universal biofilm architectures as they occur in diverse microbial but also in single-species bacterial biofilms.