BACKGROUND: Cell dispersal (or detachment) is part of the developmental cycle of microbial biofilms. It can be externally or internally induced, and manifests itself in discrete sloughing events, whereby many cells disperse in an instance, or in continuous slower dispersal of single cells. One suggested trigger of cell dispersal is quorum sensing, a cell-cell communication mechanism used to coordinate gene expression and behavior in groups based on population densities. METHOD: To better understand the interplay of colony growth and cell dispersal, we develop a dynamic, spatially extended mathematical model that includes biofilm growth, production of quorum sensing molecules, cell dispersal triggered by quorum sensing molecules, and re-attachment of cells. This is a highly nonlinear system of diffusion-reaction equations that we study in computer simulations. RESULTS: Our results show that quorum sensing induced cell dispersal can be an efficient mechanism for bacteria to control the size of a biofilm colony, and at the same time enhance its downstream colonization potential. In fact we find that over the lifetime of a biofilm colony the majority of cells produced are lost into the aqueous phase, supporting the notion of biofilms as cell nurseries. We find that a single quorum sensing based mechanism can explain both, discrete dispersal events and continuous shedding of cells from a colony. Moreover, quorum sensing induced cell dispersal affects the structure and architecture of the biofilm, for example it might lead to the formation of hollow inner regions in a biofilm colony.