research station was simple, a folding table parked on the
front lawn of a small brick house that sheltered some of the
first Basque sheepherders to immigrate to Idaho in the early
But then Adrian Odriozola explains why
he traveled about 5,300 miles from his home in Spain to be
at a Basque festival in downtown Boise, and it gets quite a
bit more complicated.
“We are trying to improve the health of
the population,” said Odriozola, a doctoral student from the
University of the Basque Country in Spain.
Odriozola was sent to the United States
in early July to collect DNA samples from descendants of the
Basque families that left their historically troubled
homeland, where the Pyrenees Mountains separate Spain from
France, and immigrated to a states such as Idaho, Nevada and
The goal: Collect enough DNA to support
one of the most comprehensive genetic maps of the ethnic
minority. The University of the Basque Country is funding
the research and hopes to explain why large portions of
Basques living in their homeland suffer from diseases such
as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and learn why diabetes is
more prevalent among Basques living in the United States.
Odriozola and his research partner,
27-year-old history student Eneko Sanz, spent several weeks
at festivals in California, Nevada and Idaho, where some
15,000 Basques live and make up the third-largest population
in the world, behind Argentina and the Basque homeland on
the Spanish-French border.
“Sometimes, it’s difficult,” Odriozola
said. “At a festival people want to party.”
The day was still early when he
stationed himself at his makeshift research station at the
San Inazio Basque Festival in Boise. Odriozola surveyed the
block of bars and restaurants, a neighborhood where Basque
descendants congregate each year to honor Saint Ignatius.
The Boiseko Gasteak Basque Dancers
wouldn’t perform for several more hours. Clear plastic cups
were filled, for the most part, with nonalcoholic drinks.
And Odriozola, a 26-year-old foreigner
who would spend the day persuading Basque descendants to
gargle a vial of pink, cinnamon flavored mouthwash and fill
out a 50-question survey about their health, was optimistic.
“This will be our strong day,” he said.
As the festival rolled out live music,
food and dancing, and then waned into the evening, Odriozola
and Sanz had collected nearly 100 samples from people like
Louise Murgoitio Gunderson.
Her grandparents immigrated from the
Basque homeland near the end of the 1800s.
“It was a hard life in Spain,” said Gunderson, a 56-year-old
budget officer with the U.S. attorney’s office in Boise.
She swigged down the pink vial of mouthwash, swished it
around in her mouth for 10 seconds, and then spit the liquid
back into the clear vial. Then she started filling in
a detailed survey about her and her family’s health.
• Did any of her relatives have a blood
• What about tumors? Skin diseases?
The process took about 10 minutes and
Gunderson became “USA169-BOIDV2” in the study, where names
are kept anonymous and vials will be identified by coded
stickers and studied at a DNA bank at the University of the
There, researchers will try to
determine whether environment or genetics played a role in
how Basques descendants developed diseases such as
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.
But first, the samples will be
processed at a lab at Boise State University, where graduate
student Mike Davis is also studying Basque DNA for his
master’s thesis. Davis helped Odriozola and Sanz gather DNA
Altogether, the team collected about
400 samples from Nevada, California and Idaho before
Odriozola and Sanz left the United States in late July to
return to Spain to process the data they’ve collected so
far. The pair will travel to Latin America later this year
to collect more DNA samples.
Few migrant populations present such a
perfect test case for explaining whether genetics or the
environment is a bigger factor in why large numbers of
Basque have developed certain diseases, Davis said.
The Basques offer a tight-knit
population, essentially identical when it comes their DNA,
but living in different countries. “They’ve always had
this sort of mystery about them,” Davis said. “Their
language, nobody really knows where it came from.”
Linguists and historians haven’t been able to define the
origin of the Basque language, called Euskera, and it has no
definite link to any other widely spoken tongues in Europe,
said John Bieter, acting director of the Basque Studies
Center at Boise State University.
“This leaves the Basque as kind of a
mysterious group,” Bieter said, “studying their DNA may be
one way to unravel that mystery.”