The research team, made up of scientists from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture, explored river systems and surrounding areas of the Peruvian Amazon Basin during research trips in 2008 and 2009, identifying and sampling cacao trees.
The scientists collected a total of 342 cacao samples during the trips before genetically analysing them, revealing that many of the new samples were found at a higher altitude than normal.
“From the 12 river systems explored, we have identified 3 completely new populations of cacao that were not previously known to science,” said Lyndel Meinhardt, lead researcher at the USDA’s sustainable perennial crops laboratory, noting the considerable industry interest in flavour innovation.
The team added that another sample, discovered by collaborators from Maranon Chocolate, was identified as Pure Nacional – an old, very rare, and highly coveted cacao variety that has garnered much interest from producers of fine-flavoured chocolates.
The researchers noted that the fastest growing segment of the confectionery industry is fine-flavour, high-end chocolates, with the cocoa for these, unitl now, primarily sourced from parts of Venezuela and Ecuador.
Meinhardt and the other scientists explained that the recently identified flavours from Peru could add to this niche market, and could one day be marketed by geographical provenance, in a similar way to wines.
The scientists, in the USA and Peru, collaborated to identify the cacao samples by categorising the DNA of the specimens, and storing them in a living germplasm bank so they are able to be further investigated and grown.
“In 2008, 7 river systems were explored, and 190 cacao trees were sampled. Of the initial 190 trees collected, 128 were successfully re-established in the germplasm bank,” said Meinhard.
“In 2009, 5 more river systems were explored in 2 expeditions and a total of 152 trees were collected and re-established in the bank,” he added.
Meinhardt said that the results of the expedition and research, combined with the needs of the fine-flavour chocolate industry, have now led to new collaborations that will look at the primary gene pool of cacao.
“Together with industry we will attempt to gather information on the genetic diversity of wild cacao from all of the countries in South America," he reported.
The research report 'Peruvian Cacao Collection Trip Yields Treasures’ was published in the Agricultural Research magazine.