Individual organisms can obtain mutual benefit by coexisting in close proximity, and this is true even on vastly differing scales. It is for this reason that biofilms can be viewed as the forests or reefs of the microscopic world. All these organic structures, despite their differences in size, exhibit complex architectures, subtle internal ecological differentiation and collective responses to external factors. But whereas we measure forests and reefs in tens to thousands of metres, biofilms are six orders of magnitude smaller.

Biofilms are to bacteria what permanent nucleated settlements – villages and towns – have been to humans for the...

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