Silk Road 2.0 has launched, and is totally legit - honest guv, it is

A new Dread Pirate Roberts has emerged, resurrecting a clone of the old Silk Road - but not necessarily its trustworthiness, yet

The Dread Pirate Roberts can never die, only the actors who play him. Say hello to Silk Road 2.0, run by a new DPR, launched on the deep web and offering all the delicious (and mostly illegal) drugs and contraband you could want.

The original Silk Road was shut down in October, with its alleged owner and operator - Ross Ulbricht - arrested. He’s currently in New York, awaiting trial, but since the site's closure there were claims that a group of Silk Road administrators had the site's source code and were going to re-launch it. Mashable scooped an interview with the new DPR:

We don't know this person's real name, location, age, gender or that there aren't multiple people behind the digital black mask. The new Dread Pirate Roberts could be anyone. The new Silk Road could be a well-orchestrated scam; the new Dread Pirate Roberts could be the old Dread Pirate Roberts, though he or she insists that's not the case.

...

Roberts himself is presumed to have been an active member of the original Silk Road. Based on his forum posts and our private communications, the new Roberts matches his predecessor in portraying Silk Road as a sort of libertarian utopia rather than a black market in the darkest corner of the web. He also has the same flare for symbolism.

He certainly does. Here's one of several similarly braggadoccio tweets he's been sending over the last few days:

Functionally, the site is almost identical to the first Silk Road. You need Tor to access it, purchases are made with bitcoins, and vendors list their wares for buyers to choose from in the same way with the site taking a small percentage cut of the money that trades hands. At least 170 vendors from the last site have confirmed their identities via encrypted messages to the new DPR and set up shop so far, with more expected.

Of course, nobody knows who the new DPR is, and considering the fallout from the last Silk Road's closure is still ongoing - with arrests of vendors in the US and Europe and the complete destruction of the trust that gave traders and buyers confidence to use the site - it is worth questioning the wisdom of setting up a duplicate.

Or, of trusting an unknown not to make the basic mistakes that Ulbricht is accused of having made in setting up the first Silk Road. It's hard to tell if that whiff in the air is weed or snake oil.

However, regardless of Silk Road 2.0's success or failure (or similarly, for competitors like Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded) it's obvious that law enforcement bodies are going to have to a problem keeping on top of absolutely everything on the deep web, black market-wise. As US Senator Tom Carper - the chairmain of the Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, no less - has said, on hearing of Silk Road 2.0's launch:

This new website - launched barely a month after Federal agents shut down the original Silk Road - underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly. Rather than play ‘whack-a-mole’ with the latest website, currency, or other method criminals are using in an effort to evade the law, we need to develop thoughtful, nimble and sensible federal policies that protect the public without stifling innovation and economic growth. Our committee intends to have that conversation – among others - at our hearing this month on virtual currency.

We've speculated that the closure of Silk Road made Bitcoin stronger before by breaking its link with the dark web and forcing governments to take it seriously as a commodity-slash-currency, and it looks like that's exactly what's happening. And, if you haven't been watching, the price of a bitcoin broke $300 for the first time this week. Things are looking frothy again for the digital currency.

Christmas comes early for customers of the dark web. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Autism and gut bacteria – the surprising link between the mind and the stomach

A recent paper has found that autistic-related social patterns can be reversed when one species of gut bacteria is present in the microbiome of mice. 

Autism – a developmental disorder that causes impediments to social interactions and behaviour – is usually linked by scientists to abnormalities in brain structure and function, caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Scientists have almost always attempted to understand the way autistic people process the world around them by looking to the mind.

According to the National Autistic Society, “There is strong evidence to suggest that autism can be caused by a variety of physical factors, all of which affect brain development; it is not due to emotional deprivation or the way a person has been brought up.”

Recently, however, a lesser-known link to autism has gained traction. This time, the link is not found in the brain but in the gut.

Reporting their findings in the journal Cell, researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine, Texas, found that the presence of a single species of gut bacteria in mice could reverse many behavioural characteristics related to autism.

In the digestive tracts of humans and other animals, there exists a complex, symbiotically integrated network of trillions of microorganisms known as the “gut flora” or “microflora”. The idea that all these bacteria and microorganisms have taken up a home in our gut may initially seem startling, but they serve a number of beneficial purposes, such as aiding digestion and offering immunity from infection.

The potential link between gut flora and autism arose as researchers identified the increased risk of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, among children born from mothers who were obese during pregnancy. The microflora of obese people is demonstrably different from those who are not obese, and as a result, connections have been made to the gut issues often reported in autistic people.

The senior author of the study and neuroscientist Mauro Costa-Mattioli said: “Other research groups are trying to use drugs or electrical brain stimulation as a way to reverse some of the behavioural symptoms associated with neurodevelopmental disorders – but here we have, perhaps, a new approach.”

To determine what the differences in gut bacteria were, the researchers fed 60 female mice a high-fat diet, with the aim of replicating the type of gut flora that would be found among people consuming a high-fat diet which would contribute to obesity. A control group of mice was fed a normal diet to serve as comparison. The mice in each group then mated, and their eventual offspring then spent three weeks with their mothers while being observed to see how behaviour and microflora was affected.

It was found that the offspring from the mice laden with high-fat foods exhibited social impairments, including very little engagement with peers. Meanwhile, a test called ribosomal RNA gene sequencing found that the offspring of the mice that were fed a high-fat diet housed a very different bacterial gut environment to the offspring of mice fed a normal diet.

Discussing the result, co-author Shelly Buffington was keen to stress just how significant the findings were: “By looking at the microbiome of an individual mouse we could predict whether its behaviour would be impaired.”

In an effort to understand whether the variation in microbiome was the reason for differences in social behaviour, the researchers paired up control group mice with high-fat diet mice. Peculiarly, mice eat each other’s faeces, which is why researchers kept them together for four weeks. The high-fat diet mice would eat the faeces of the normal mice and gain any microflora they held. Astonishingly, the high-fat diet mice showed improvements in behaviour and changes to the microbiome, hinting that there may be a species of bacteria making all the difference.

After careful examination using a technique called whole-genome shotgun sequencing, it was found that one type of bacteria – Lactobacillus reuteri – was far less prevalent in the offspring of high-fat diet mice than the offspring of normal-diet mice.

Discussing the method and finding, Buffington said: “We culture a strain of Lactobacillus reuteri originally isolated from human breast milk and introduced it into the water of the high-fat diet offspring. We found that treatment with this single bacterial strain was able to rescue their social behaviour.”

What the Lactobacillus reuteri seemed to be doing was increasing production of oxytocin, a hormone which is known by various other names such as the “trust hormone”, or the “love hormone”, because of its role in social interactions.

The results of the experiment showing that Lactobacillus reuteri can influence social behaviour are profound findings. Though the work would need to be transferred from mice studies to full human clinical trials to see if this could be applied to autistic people, the impact of adding Lactobacillus reuteri to the gut flora of mice can’t be underestimated. It seems then, for now, that research will go with the gut.