Arrested phase separation in reproducing bacteria creates a generic route to pattern formation

We present a generic mechanism by which reproducing microorganisms, with a diffusivity that depends on the local population density, can form stable patterns. For instance, it is known that a decrease of bacterial motility with density can promote separation into bulk phases of two coexisting densities; this is opposed by the logistic law for birth and death that allows only a single uniform density to be stable. The result of this contest is an arrested nonequilibrium phase separation in which dense droplets or rings become separated by less dense regions, with a characteristic steady-state length scale. Cell division predominates in the dilute regions and cell death in the dense ones, with a continuous flux between these sustained by the diffusivity gradient. We formulate a mathematical model of this in a case involving run-and-tumble bacteria and make connections with a wider class of mechanisms for density-dependent motility. No chemotaxis is assumed in the model, yet it predicts the formation of patterns strikingly similar to some of those believed to result from chemotactic behavior.